Ten, nine, eight… the ticking time bomb and countdown clock are a familiar technique in creative writing. You’ll find them everywhere – in films, fiction, copywriting, setting in motion a high-stakes race against the clock. These writing devices aren’t always literal, of course – they’re often metaphorical. So, what are ticking clocks used for, and how can you refresh this tired trope?
1. A ticking clock piles the pressure on characters
A ticking clock or time bomb device is there to put pressure on the characters in your story.
The technique is often seen in thrillers – the heroine wrestling over a spaghetti of blue, green and red wires, as the numbers flash down to deadly zero… will she make the right call?
This visual representation of time is especially useful in film. But it’s now such a screenwriting cliché that writers have to work hard to change it up.
Classic example: Armageddon, The Abyss.
Find something dangerous in your story that has in-built time pressure. It may not be as high-impact as a bomb – it could be a wonky TV, a frayed fuse, a candle burning down, a cigarette left sizzling. How can you use this to put pressure on your characters?
Brainstorm the predictable outcomes, and see if you can write your own twist and come up with something new.
2. The ticking clock device is classic Aristotle
The grandfather of story structure, Aristotle, was aware of the power of the clock. He identified the three dramatic unities of story, space and time, and noticed that dramas with a restricted time span had more tension.
Plays that took place on a single day, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, compressed time in a way that put powerful pressure on the characters. This made their story more exciting for the audience.
No room to hide! No time to escape! Writers have been using the pressure-cooker effect of time ever since.
Classic example: Oedipus Rex, Groundhog Day.
Look at the time span of your story and see if you can increase the tension by compressing the time frame. For example, if two scenes are divided by an overnight, can you squeeze them into the same morning?
Imagine a car chase where the detectives have time to go home, shower, have a sleep then head out again… no pressure at all!
Alternatively, combine story beats into a single scene for greater tension. Choose a time and setting that allows you to write in maximum action. Think of pressure cookers or stock cubes and how they distill something’s essence.
3. A ticking countdown clock needs high stakes
A countdown clock needs to have strong meaning (high stakes) for the character, or it won’t have any emotional effect. Say the alarm clock is ticking down to 7am, and your character is debating whether to jump out of bed when it rings.
If it’s the weekend, and they can just roll over and go back to sleep, then nothing is at stake. The 7am alarm doesn’t put any real pressure on the characters.
But if it’s 7am on the day of your wedding, an important interview or a do-or-die meeting, every second counts.
That’s when a countdown clock works best.
On the kind of day when it’s your friend’s wedding, you’re the best man, and you’re already late, late, late…
Classic example: Four Weddings and a Funeral.
If you use a clock-type device, make sure something’s really at stake for the characters.
Say they miss the train, and there’s another one along in half an hour. What’s the problem? Nothing at stake! Just catch the next train!
But what if it’s the only train south? The last train before the border closes?
If the hero misses this train, the couple will never meet again, the revolution will fail, the traveler will die…
Something terrible will happen if he doesn’t catch this vital do-or-die train.
That’s high stakes.
Choose a “ticking clock” and reason that fit the theme of your story.
4. A ticking time bomb needn’t be an actual clock
Often, ticking clocks in stories are literal clocks.
Think of all those time bombs with digital displays ticking. Station clocks and guards blowing whistles. Weddings and deadlines…
But dwindling time isn’t always about literal clocks.
There are plenty of other objects that signal a point of no return, and can be used as a metaphorical ticking time bomb.
For example, a car running out of gas. A log supply running low in the freezing hut. A contract that will transfer grandma’s house to the villain.
Make those stakes high. Make it really matter.
Dig into the power of high stakes writing.
Classic example: Into the Wild.
Brainstorm physical objects with a built-in time limit.
Look around the location of your story, and see what you can use to put the characters under time pressure. Is it set in a space station? Underwater? A hot, sweaty bakery?
Objects can expire or run out of gas. But they can also change in other ways that create pressure. Escalate, grow, shrink or undergo some kind of transformation, for example.
What’s at stake if this happens? Can you speed up this transformation, or put it under increasing pressure?
5. A ticking time bomb needn’t be a thing
Ticking time bombs don’t need to be objects. They can be high stakes circumstances, such as illness or jeopardy.
Extremes of cold or heat put characters under great pressure, especially if they’re potentially fatal.
Running out of life-saving medication is another option. Or the opposite: imbibing a slow drip-feed of poison.
Classic example: Titanic.
Brainstorm circumstances that will put your characters under severe pressure, at the limits of their endurance.
What happens if you pile the pressure just a little more, if the situation escalates?
Now, find a way to include this in your story.
Note: making life as tough as possible for your characters is part of the fun of dramatic writing