The Ticking Clock

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and it never feels like the story is moving toward something?  There’s no big event, no big game or show, no sense of a ticking clock either literally or figuratively?  That lack of a ticking clock can oftentimes result in a meandering story that causes an audience to lose interest pretty fast.

When you set out to create a sense of urgency or stakes – as I talked about in the last post – it’s always good to create a finite end point for your main character to reach by the end of the story.  Do they have to get somewhere by a certain time?  Do they have to find the killer before he strikes again?  Do they have to track down the stolen pygmy goats to get them to the holiday festival?

Creating a deadline for your main character will also help you focus your story and your main character’s goals over the course of the narrative.  When you know by what moment the character will know whether not they have reached their goal, you can figure out what obstacles and opposing forces to throw at them that will create the best chaos and sense of urgency for them and the audience.

Let’s use a movie most people have seen: Independence Day.  Here’s a movie that starts with a pretty intense ticking clock: one that shows when the alien ships will launch their first coordinated attack around the world.   That sense of urgency continues with a ticking clock that gives them an eventual goal to disable the alien mothership in order to stop the alien ships on Earth from executing another mass attack.  The film uses literal countdown clocks throughout to show the sense of urgency and to guide the story toward its climax on the 4thof July.

Now, imagine if the ships showed up and David (Jeff Goldblum) discovered that they would attack in six months instead of 28 minutes.  Yes, there is a ticking clock, but the stakes and urgency evaporate.  In six months they could evacuate all the major cities and probably find a way to defeat the aliens prior to their first attack. 

So, as you develop your story, try and see if there is some event or final battle your main character can be moving toward in order to create a deadline with a sense of urgency.

What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!