Friday, May 30, 2014

1 From the Archives - The Ticking Clock: Techniques for the Breakout Novel by Martina Boone

Jill Corcoran blogged about ways to activate your story, using Gayle Forman's 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?

1 comment:

  1. John Green did it well in LOOKING FOR ALASKA. Though using "## Days Before" as chapter headings may seem like cheating, it hooked me right in, even when it became clear what was going to happen. Tom Clancy was a master at it, as are most good thriller writers. Put a clock on a nuclear bomb and...well, it gets pretty exciting. YA contep writers have a bigger challenge, of course, but any ticking clock, even if it's a minor sub-plot, keeps the reader engaged (yes, 47 year old men worry that the hero won't find a date in time for the prom). Good post!

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