Tuesday, November 20, 2012

5 Using the Ticking Clock to Add Suspense

I'm hunkering down on a project and family is starting to arrive, so today's craft post is a repost from the archives.  I imagine everyone else is getting crazy, too? Hope you are getting into the holiday mood!

Happy Tuesday,


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Jill Corcoran blogged about ways to activate your story a while back, using Gayle Forman's gorgeous novel, If I Stay, as an example of a great beginning. She wrote:

Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence….a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:
Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.
But the reason that sentence works, really works, is a tiny little piece left out of the quote. Here's how the novel really starts:
7:09 A.M.
Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

Do you see it? It's there in big bold letters. The ticking clock.

Because that clock is there, we know to combine "it" with a timeline. We know something is going to happen soon. We know "it" is bad, because why bother with a clock that precise if it isn't a countdown of sorts. And we know it has to do with the snow. Sort of. So now, we're hooked. We have to know what "it" is, and why it wasn't completely to do with the snow. And we have an implied promise that it isn't going to take the author long to get there.

As readers, we haven't thought through any of this. It's simply there, in the back kitchen of our consciousness, if I may borrow the phrase from Kipling. And once it's there, it has a hold on us.

Even a reader who wouldn't normally read a book about bow-tie-wearing dads, or little brothers who let out war whoops, or mothers who work in travel agent's offices--who cares about all that stuff at the beginning of a book, right?--is going to be curious enough to read a little further. Sure enough, Forman delivers on the promise. At 8:17 a.m., a dad who isn't great at driving gets behind the wheel of a rusting buick and.... Well, we know we only have a few more pages.

Even after the accident, the clock doesn't stop. It continues until 7:16 the next morning, because Mia is trying to make her decision, and all along, all through the twists and turns and intricately woven scraps of memory and medical magic, that clock keeps us focused on the fact that something life-changing is going to happen. Soon. Soon. So you can't stop reading.

Building Suspense with a Ticking Clock

Having an actual Jack Bauer 24-style ticking clock only works if something momentous is going to happen:
  • An event, accident, or necessary meeting
  • A deadline given to prevent consequences
  • An opportunity that can, but shouldn't, be missed
  • Elapsed time from a precipitating event
The Clock

The clock is mainly a metaphor. You can use any structural device that forces the protagonist to compress events. It can be the time before a bomb explodes or the air runs out for a kidnapped girl, but it can also be driven by an opponent after the same goal: only one child can survive the Hunger Games, supplies are running out in the City of Ember....

Only three things are required to make a ticking clock device work in a novel:
  • Clear stakes (hopefully escalating
  • Increasing obstacles or demand for higher thresholds of competence
  • Diminishing time in which to achieve the goal
Whether your clock is an actual countdown to a date or time of day, or some other method of event compression, it creates tension. It limits the time your characters have to think and act, forces them into decisions--perhaps rash ones--and, used skillfully, reinforces the consequences of failure. All of this creates urgency for your characters, and urges the reader to turn the pages.

A ticking clock doesn't make sense for every novel. But whatever novel you are writing now, consider whether your stakes could be further dramatized by adding a time limitation of some sort.

What books have you read that contain an interesting ticking clock? How many examples can we come up with?

Happy ticking,



  1. In Anne Elizabeth Stengl's HEARTLESS, the ticking clock is the heroine's dreams of the dragon. The dragon is searching high and low for her, and as the plot goes on, he zeros in on her location.

    In Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, they race against a literal ticking clock in the finale during the time travel part.

    In Diana Wynne Jone's MERLIN CONSPIRACY, the ticking clock is that the heroine knows deadly information, but nobody will believe her, and as the world slowly but surely goes to heck, the heroine and the hero's plotlines converge and all the pieces come together--but the villains have such a head start that the heroine and hero are running to catch up. The last third of the book is very exciting just because of that ticking clock, as the world edges toward ending.

    Other devices I've seen used are the gradually worsening disease, the bomb, the supports giving out under the building, the hole in the boat. The reader knows it's there, but the characters may not know about it until later. First it's the suspense of wondering when they'll find out, then wondering how they'll deal with it.

  2. The ticking clock is a great metaphor, I'd not heard before. I really like it. Thanks!
    Yvette Carol

  3. This is such a great post.The ticking clocks in my books have always been kind of wimpy and apathetic. I absolutely have to make them more specific. Thanks for this reminder!

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  5. Kessie! Wow, thanks for sharing those great examples! I haven't read HEARTLESS, and now I'm definitely adding it to the TBR.

    Also excellent point about the other devices. Those deserve a post of their own! Want to help?

    Yvette--thanks for the note. Isn't it great to add new tools to the arsenal?

    Becca -- what are you doing blogging, woman? Get the recuperating from Disneyland!!!! :)

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, everyone!


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