What a Ticking Clock Is

By Johnny B. Truant

hand with stopwatch

Today we’re going to be talking about the ticking clock, and this is a term we use a lot when Sean and I are talking about writing together and I have to assume that Sean and Dave talk about it.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

If you step back from what is a ticking clock, and we get to the root of why would you use anything like a ticking clock, the whole point is to keep your reader engaged.

I would argue that that’s the role of just about any story, even a slow paced story, you do want your reader engaged.

You wouldn’t necessarily want them edge of your seat, page turning, staying up all night if you’re writing something very literary, although you could.

You always want to keep people engaged and specifically for what we think of as page turning fiction, which tends to be things like thrillers or very active sci-fi, or any thing where in the reviews people say I had to stay up all night, curse you I didn’t get to work the next day because I overslept because I stayed up too late reading your book, and when is the next one coming out, I need to know right away.

Those are page turning books, and just from the commercial side those books tend to be very good sellers because they’re just so compulsive.

girl peeking from behind clockA ticking clock is one of those compulsive page turning engagement tactics.

When we have a book we know that we want the person to keep turning the page, we turn to a bag of tricks and a ticking clock is one of them.

A ticking clock is basically a deadline is established early on in the story, or at some sub-point in the story, say at the beginning of an act, or an episode if you’re doing serials. At some point in the story that’s going to conclude an arc or a loop where you establish a deadline or a time frame.

Something needs to happen by X or some dire circumstance will occur.

There’s a definite time for it and during the pages that follow, you continually remind people how much of that time is ticking away.

If we find that we have something where we have a character and they need to get to something, they might take their time and the pages unfold and they get a little closer and they get a little closer.

But if we really want to amp up the tension and keep that reader turning the pages and we want that feel for the book, we will establish a deadline.

We did this for The Dream Engine although I can’t say what ticking clock we added. I’m a bit too distant from it, but I know we had people progressing and we said we need a deadline. We need something that’s going to happen.

Here are a few examples.

If you think of Back to the Future, Doc has to fix everything. He has to convince his older self and he has to get Marty enlisted and fix the time machine and get the fuel and all that stuff before the moment when the lightning strikes the clock tower.

And they know exactly when that is because they know the day and it’s sort of a local holiday and the clock stops at that minute.

They know literally when that is going to happen so that entire movie is unfolding with that urgency.

If you’ve seen Run Lola Run, Lola has twenty minutes to deliver 100,000 marks and the whole nature of that book is just tick, tick, tick, tick.

If you watched 24, the nature of a ticking clock is quite literal. Between every scene you will see the clock ticking off. It just heightens tension because the person who’s watching or reading the story just has to know.

So, if you want to amp up tension, if you want to keep people turning pages more and more in your books, or if you’re a screenwriter and you want to do that in your scripts, just consider adding ticking clocks.

If you want to amp up tension, if you want to keep people turning pages, consider adding a ticking clock. Click To Tweet
Johnny B. Truant is the author of the Fat Vampire series and The Bialy Pimps, in addition to everything he has written with Sean at Realm & Sands.

Johnny and his family live in Austin, Texas (after several years of planning to move and complaining about life in northern Ohio).

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