The Ticking Clock

05 Dec

“Get ready for rush hour.”

In writing, the Ticking Clock is a dramatic device in which some event looming in the near future requires that the conflict reach a speedy resolution (hence, the ticking clock).

While most of us live our lives without a ticking clock that rachets up suspense and means that we will lose love, life, or even the world as we know it, that kind of story won’t cut it in the writing world. Without a device to add impetus to the plot, pacing might slow down, which might make the reader decide s/he needs to fold the drying or watch the ESPN sports news. Not good.

I know that we’re supposed to write the story of our hearts, but what if you’ve written a lovely generational story about everyday people who struggle, love, laugh, and…live? Even if it’s original, thoughtful, and well written, it might not be enough for today’s market. The term “Bread  & Circuses” comes to mind, especially seeing how reality shows entice viewers to follow people in antics that, to me, are appalling. We’re told that if we write a good story, editors will buy it.

The reality is a ticking clock enhances the plot and gives the reader a page-turning story. Remember “Speed” in 1994 with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock? The mad bomber rigged the passenger bus to explode if it slowed down to a particular speed. I believe it was 50 mph, which became difficult on the crowded city streets. Also, if the H/H tried to unload any passengers, the bomber would trigger the detonator.

The authorities sought to dilute the immediate danger by directing the bus to a freeway. Just when the H/H breathed a sigh of relief at the respite, it turned out the road wasn’t completed and the bus would fall off the end of the construction. The H/H managed to get out of that problem, only go find out the bus was running out of gas. The stakes continued to get higher and higher for the two hour movie (Disclaimer: I might have remembered some things that happened out of order). I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times and I love it.

Would I have felt the same way if Keanu was a cop trying to solve a robbery and he met Sandra while canvassing the neighborhood? Maybe he asked her out and they fell in love. He continued his investigation and founded out her cousin Vinny was the thief. That’s some conflict. But, Vinnie was a criminal and Sandra understood.

This movie is a great example of keeping the audience interested and anxious all the way to the end. A roller coaster ride of emotions that has the viewer pulling for the H/H. The ticking clock device was used effectively to enhance the plot.

We have to do that with our novels. Not necessarily using the ticking clock, but to keep the reader engaged. Where do you come down on the question of whether a writer needs bells and whistles to make it today? Do you have a book or movie that used the ticking clock to improve the story?


Posted by on December 5, 2011 in plotting, readers, writers, writing, writing craft


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22 responses to “The Ticking Clock

  1. Kyrsten

    December 5, 2011 at 7:49 AM

    Speed is one of my favorite movies, one of those ones that I didn’t think of as a classic when I finished it the first time, but I found myself wanting to watch again and again – to dip back into the fantasy that the writer/director/actors built.

    From what I remember, you have all the plot points in order. I don’t think I own a copy now that the VCR is gone, maybe I should see if it is out in Blu-ray….

    Oh, and back to writing – yes, I’ve not figured out how to put a ticking clock in my novel. Easier said than done. Maybe if you start with a story idea and characters and then a list of potential ticking clocks before you start plotting…still working that out.

    • Janis McCurry

      December 5, 2011 at 8:14 AM

      It is difficult because I don’t want to be obvious, but I want to engage the reader as much as possible. I like your idea of starting with the story idea and making a list. Thanks, Kyrsten.

  2. Liz Fredericks

    December 5, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    I’ll turn to my usual stock of cliches on this one – for me, as a reader, there’s a fine line between anxious excitement and anticipation as a plot quickens and anxiety. I don’t like books where I am afraid that something bad will happen or happened, even if I know I’ll get the happy ending. I was talking about this to a friend yesterday. If a child is endangered – or was harmed – in a plot, I’ll almost always stop reading. Even writing about it on this comment furrows my brow. The best writers maintain that exquisite balance of tension. Too little and I’ll fold laundry. Too much . . . and I’ll fold laundry.

    • Janis McCurry

      December 5, 2011 at 8:12 AM

      At least your laundry looks nice. 🙂 I’m the same way with kids … as well as animals. Another movie I watch again and again is Shooter with Mark Wahlberg (yesterday, in fact). Off camera, the bad guys kill his dog and the scene where Mark learns that gets me every time. 😦

  3. Meredith Conner

    December 5, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    I love ticking clock plots. I’m not so great at them, but I have a friend who uses it EXTREMELY well. Each new scene has a place, date and time and the date and time gradually start to get closer and closer together until my heart is almost pounding out of my chest. Very effective.

    • Janis McCurry

      December 5, 2011 at 9:27 AM

      When it takes the reader along for the ride, the pages keep turning.

  4. Meredith Conner

    December 5, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    ps – I love the movie Speed. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are so perfect in that movie!

  5. Janis McCurry

    December 5, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    Yes, because of their chemistry in that one, I saw The Lake House. Whereas in Speed, they spent most of the time together, it was the opposite in The Lake House. Very different. And Keanu is not known for his ability to show emotion. LOL.

  6. maryvine

    December 5, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    Makes me want to watch Speed again-I only saw it once. I love suspense movies the best, I think. My first two published stories had some suspense in them, but not that much. My current wip has some, too. Your post makes me want to up the stakes in this story. Thanks!

    • Janis McCurry

      December 5, 2011 at 10:52 AM

      You’re welcome. As Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) said in Top Gun. “I feel the need…the need for Speed!”

  7. Carley Ash

    December 5, 2011 at 10:39 AM

    Every time there is a writer’s discussion on the ticking clock, I always think of this movie.
    It’s too intense for me though. I can only take so much action in a movie. Guess that’s why I love the Rom-Coms.

  8. Kyrsten

    December 5, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Maybe I’m influenced by their chemistry in Speed, but I love Lake House. Meeting but not her knowing him. Her hurt at his absence for their dinner date, his decision and sacrifice to have her – Working out the puzzle. Scrumptious. Not perfect, not literature, but a heart pull every time.

  9. Janis McCurry

    December 5, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    Rom Coms are my favorites. When I watch a movie, I want an HEA. And Kysten, I own The Lake House, so I’m a sucker for the heart pull. Although, there was a ticking clock there, too, you know.

  10. ramblingsfromtheleft

    December 5, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    Janis, I think one of the best movie examples is Carley’s selection … Mission Impossible is one heck of a roller coaster ride from beginning to end. At the end you feel worn out and ready to collapse 🙂

    • Janis

      December 5, 2011 at 4:51 PM

      MI does have a good record of ticking clock devices. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Lynn Mapp

    December 5, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    Janis, I first heard about using the ticking clock at a Suzanne Brockman workshop. My problem is I haven’t used it in my books, not the way Brockman does. I love the idea, but I haven’t been able to make it my own.

    • Janis

      December 5, 2011 at 4:52 PM

      It very hard to make the device fit if you don’t write suspense, mystery, thrillers. The emotional ticking clock is something to work on.

  12. Tracy Wilson-Burns

    December 5, 2011 at 9:31 PM

    Three books come to mind after reading your post. One is “The Da Vinci Code” (Brown). Ticking clock. Very badly written. But I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I was so engrossed in the plot I think I was probably rude to friends I was traveling with at the time, reading the book while they were engaged in a seven hour drive carpool chat.

    Second book is “Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.” (A gothic novel, strong romance) Not a ticking clock. I read all 487 pages in one sitting. Gripping. It clutched me and didn’t let go.

    The third book is “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Shriver). No ticking clock (at least in a direct sense.) Absolutely spellbinding. I couldn’t put it down, either.

    I want to understand what Zafon and Shriver did and how they did it. Compelling reading. No ticking clocks (at least not in the macro sense).

    Great topic for thinking about what it is about our novels that make readers want to keep reading, need to keep reading. I don’t think I’m a ticking clock kind of storyteller, so I need to learn other ways to hook readers–and Zafon and Shriver are good ones for me to study. Thanks for posting this!

    • Janis McCurry

      December 6, 2011 at 2:13 PM

      I like a good Gothic story so thanks for the tip. I confess I never got around to reading The Da Vinci Code. Saw the movie. It was okay.

      Yes, finding the device that leads to page-turning and works with a writer’s individual style is the key.

  13. Clarissa Southwick

    December 7, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    Great post, Janis. I love the ticking clock, and seeing all the different forms it can take in films & literature. Some of the best examples are the simplest –like in The Cat and The Hat where the kids have to get the mess cleaned up before their mother gets home. It works in almost any type of story.

  14. Janis McCurry

    December 7, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Nice example, Clarissa. We don’t have to think of ticking clocks as having to be “the end of the world” type of scenarios. Thanks.


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