“Tick-Tick-Boom!: Ratcheting Up the Tension with a Ticking Clock” (by Sandy Smith)

Sandy Smith makes her EQMM debut in our 80th Anniversary Issue (September/October 2021)—on sale next week!  She’s had a number of stories published elsewhere. Two were nominated for Best of the Net (2018 and 2019) and another for the Pushcart Prize (2019). What she has to say in this post about creating suspense does not derive only from her own writing, however. She’s a freelance editor for publishers including Soho and Little, Brown, and she will be teaching an online class in short-story writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis this fall. —Janet Hutchings

In the 1998 German thriller Run Lola Run, the titular character has twenty minutes to summon up 100,000 Deutschmarks to save her boyfriend, a bagman who has misplaced the money he is due to deliver. The structure of the film is experimental, doubling and tripling back on itself to suggest alternate endings, but what drives the relentless pace throughout is the ticking clock that Lola has to beat to save her man. The film moves at a frantic, breath-stealing pace, and it feels terribly, wonderfully stressful to race the clock alongside Lola.

Sometimes, the ticking clock is literal: Cinderella, while living her best life at the ball, must keep an eye on the clock. Her fairy godmother’s enchantments expire at the stroke of midnight, and she must get home by then or risk exposure. Other literal clocks might be attached to bombs or missile launchers. 

On the other hand, a ticking clock doesn’t have to be a clock at all. Although time constraints may be imposed to create a sense of urgency, as in Lola, as a literary device, a “ticking clock” may be purely metaphorical. It can really be any factor that puts the protagonist under pressure by introducing a literal or figurative deadline. If the protagonist doesn’t accomplish a given objective by this fixed variable, dire consequences threaten. As long as there are clearly defined stakes, a rising sense of urgency, and a countdown of some sort, you’ve got a ticking clock. 

Other examples of imposed deadlines include the car that is running out of gas on a dark and lonely road, an arctic explorer’s dwindling supply of carefully rationed food, or a desperately ill patient’s failing heart juxtaposed with their status on a donor list. An innocent man on death row waits anxiously for an eleventh-hour pardon while the clock ticks. Pregnancy, too, provides a ticking clock as it unfolds inexorably over nine months, each month drawing closer to a dramatic conclusion and a big reveal. 

Mystery and crime stories practically have ticking clocks built in—detectives must catch serial killers before they kill again; bombs must be disarmed before they explode; heists must be pulled off before the cops arrive; hostages must be ransomed or rescued before time runs out. In all these cases, that feeling of racing time to avoid disaster propels the plot and accelerates the pace. If you’re trying to save the world from a computer wargaming us to nuclear annihilation, you’re going to run, not walk, to bring in the briefcase full of codes that stops the countdown.

Whatever form it takes, a ticking clock must come with high stakes. If there’s no consequence for running out the clock, there’s no point in having a clock. Say, for example, the ticking clock is a plane that the protagonist is determined to catch. Not much is at stake if that character is flying to Miami just for a bit of sun and fun, and there’s another plane an hour later with plenty of open seats. However, if the protagonist must be on that plane because her lover has been poisoned and she is in possession of the only known antidote AND it’s the last plane of the day AND there’s someone chasing her to make sure that antidote is destroyed before the plane takes off . . . she’s going to be racing hard to make that plane, and our pulse will be racing as a result.

The ticking clock device should be obvious inside the world of the story—it’s not enough for the reader to know about it; the protagonist must feel the pressure mounting too. If the audience knows but the protagonist doesn’t, that might make for a compelling tragedy, but it won’t provide the same propulsive tension created by sharing in the protagonist’s stress. 

It’s usually best if the clock starts ticking early, shortly after the characters are introduced and the stakes are established. At that point, inserting a clock galvanizes the action by adding suspense. As the deadline approaches, the going should get rougher to keep the anxiety high. The clock usually runs out at the moment of climax, or when the protagonist accomplishes the mission on deadline, but definitely not before. Denouement starts when the clock stops.

Also, although a ticking clock serves as the primary, or most immediate, concern, it shouldn’t be the only form of conflict. Consider a story about a pair of experienced climbers ascending a mountain on what was supposed to be the climb of a lifetime. The going is difficult, but they summit successfully and celebrate a bit at the top. Soon, however, it becomes obvious that a storm is rolling in. Experienced enough to be aware of the danger of getting caught at the summit in bad weather, they decide to cut their celebration short and begin to descend. As they make their way down the mountain, faster than is strictly prudent but pressured by the oncoming stormfront, one of the hikers falls and sustains a terrible injury. Incapacitated, he can’t go on. His partner does what she can to cobble together a rudimentary shelter and make him comfortable in it while she goes for help. Both of them know the situation is precarious. His injuries are grave, and if he’s going to make it he needs medical attention sooner rather than later. Then the storm arrives with devastating force, and she must race against her partner’s life-threatening injuries and battle the weather for her own survival. Things get so bad that she is forced to spend several hours in a trail shelter, where she encounters another hiker, who, unbeknownst to her, is an opportunistic predator. 

Our hiker now has to contend simultaneously with a person-versus-nature and a person-versus-person conflict under the pressure of the ticking clock of her partner’s worsening condition. The sustained pressure of that mission deadline—to get her partner rescued—is amplified by these new conflicts. At the same time, thoughts of her partner give her the resolve to get through the storm and the courage to fight off the attacker. If it were revealed to the reader, but not the protagonist, that the injured partner succumbed, the ticking clock would still exist for her, but the tension would diminish substantially for the reader. The denouement would be protracted as she makes her way to safety, and the story is drained of dynamic tension because we already know that she’s failed to meet the deadline. A better climax would occur as she returns to her dying companion with a search-and-rescue team in the barest nick of time. 

For additional examples of the ticking clock device, check out the following:

  • Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs. Novice FBI agent Clarice Starling must stop serial killer Buffalo Bill before he murders the senator’s daughter he has kidnapped.
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road. The ticking clock here is the father’s illness, which worsens as he and the boy travel to safety.
  • High Noon. This 1952 Western film is a superb example of a protagonist who must confront mounting obstacles while running out a ticking clock. 
  • Speed. A 1994 action thriller in which the ticking clock is a bus wired with a bomb that’s activated once the bus goes over fifty mph and will detonate if it subsequently slows to below fifty mph. 
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3 Responses to “Tick-Tick-Boom!: Ratcheting Up the Tension with a Ticking Clock” (by Sandy Smith)

  1. jeffbaker307 says:

    Looking forward to reading it! Remember the MASH episode where a patient must be operated on within 30 minutes and they have a clock in the corner of the screen?

  2. Well said. Thanks for posting.

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