T is for Ticking Clock


by Lillian Csernica on April 23, 2013

The ticking clock is the key to creating edge-of-your-seat tension and suspense. The classic example is the red LED readout on the bomb ticking down those final seconds. In the more general sense, if your protagonist does not accomplish a certain task by a certain deadline, something really horrible will happen. This usually involves some kind of loss, such as the bomb exploding in the hospital or the Bad Guy killing the protagonist’s love interest.

That sense of “Time is running out!” keeps your reader hooked on the story. It’s up to you to maintain that level of interest with strong characters involved in plausible conflict that escalates toward the climax of the story. To achieve the full effect, you need not just the ticking clock itself but all the obstacles that get in the way and cost your protagonist precious time. Keep those obstacles believable and use just enough to maintain the escalation of the tension. If you go on for too long with obstacle after obstacle, after a certain point the pace flatlines because reader begins to lose interest.

What are some memorable ticking clocks?

Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol“: If Scrooge doesn’t learn his lesson by the time the Ghost of Christmas Future is done with him, Scrooge won’t have any future at all.

The Bourne Legacy“: Aaron Cross races against time and everybody who’s trying to kill him in order to get what he needs to preserve the man he has become.

In the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, there are several novels featuring Granny Weatherwax. In what is perhaps her best adventure, Witches Abroad, Granny must face her ultimate adversary in a world of magical mirrors with Death himself on hand as time is running out.

Excitement. Challenges. High stakes. These are all parts of a good story. Add to them the pressure of the ticking clock and your readers will keep coming back for more.

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Filed under Blog challenges, fantasy, Fiction, Writing

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