Tuesday, October 5, 2010

18 The Ticking Clock: Techniques for the Breakout Novel

Jill Corcoran blogged about ways to activate your story recently, 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. I loved that book. I think what made that book great was how the author managed to make us understand what was at stake depending on the decision the MC made at the end- how hard it was going to be for her. And you're right, we totally did fall in love with her family in the first few pages.

  2. Suspense and the build up takes a lot of work. Some authors plan it out, while others are naturals. This post made me want to read more.

  3. Great post. You're right. However we do it, we've got to keep raising the tension in our story.

  4. I think this is also a good tip for writing queries and synopses. If you can give a sense for the ticking clock (whether real or metaphorical) in your summary, it's going to be a lot more gripping. People are going to want to find out whether the clock can be beaten.

  5. Thanks, ladies! Meagan, I have a ticking clock (of sorts) in both the ms I am querying now and my WIP. (Actually my WIP has two.) I do reference it in my query letter, and I hope you're right. (So far so good, anyway.)

    Clearly I love writing with a clock, but I also love reading with one. Those books, so long as they are also character-deep and rich in visuals and details, are usually my favorites. Books like Rachel Ward's NUMBERS, or Melissa Marr's RADIANT SHADOWS where faerie is falling apart because the queen is sleeping, or any of Cassandra Clare's books, are hard to put down once you pick them up.

  6. Oh, and I shouldn't forget Beautiful Creatures. Definite ticking clock!

  7. Nice trick!!! Instant tension.

  8. Yes, I've heard this trick at an SCBWI conference! Good stuff. I have a timeline, tho not an actual clock, in my WIP, where I'll gradually be tightening the tension as MC's week goes by...

  9. Love the ticking clock. That always pulls me into a book. Just finished Insatiable--loved it and I'm not a vampyre, werewolf kind of reader, but a good story is a good story.

    And yes, your post was very helpful.

  10. I just flew through this book this past weekend and you're so right. I knew something was going to happen and it was going to be bad but I was still mortified when it did! I actually had to stop and marvel at how the author did it. It was pure writing magic!

    Great post, neat trick, awesome book.

  11. Very interesting. Something I've noticed in many of my stories is the compressed time in which the events take place. I'll have to go back and figure out whether there's actual "ticking clock" pressure, or if it is something else...

  12. Great post - interesting - has me thinking.

  13. Definitely the clock technique is one of the most successful ways to create instant tension. Good stuff!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  14. My WIP takes place over the 12 days of Christmas, so it's a finite amount of time for my main to accomplish her goals. And then she loses time due to illness. It sort of made me think of Labyrinth when Jareth removes several hours based on Sarah's pride, making the challenge almost impossible.
    BTW, Raquel Byrnes also blogged on the Breakout Novel.

  15. Great idea. I've always wondered how to do the ticking time clock without the actual clock. Your examples were perfect. :D

  16. Great post! And I swoon over IF I STAY. Loved it.


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