Tag Archives: Movie

What is a Time Lock?

Lose up of lock


A time lock, in story telling, is a structural device that imposes a limit on the time allowed for a problem to be solved. Failure to do so in the allotted time, renders the story goal unachievable, and the mission a failure.

A time lock, is often, quite literally a clock, counting down to zero before the bomb explodes. Examples abound: In Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the pilots flying the aircraft carrying an atomic bomb that will start the next world war have to be persuaded not to drop it before they reach the target site; in Next, Nicholas Cage has to foil the villain’s plans before a nuclear device wipes out LA.

In my own novel, Scarab II: Reawakening, the Hero, Jack Wheeler, has to get to the quantum computer before the appointed time to stop it from running the programme that may destroy the world.

In 36 Hours the time lock is even more tightly woven into the story’s structure. With the invasion of Europe but days away, the Nazis have little time to extract the date and landing location of the Allied forces from James Garner. Although the story might still work by concentrating on how Garner is seduced into talking, the time lock imbues the story with an overall tension that could not be achieved otherwise.

In Armageddon, a shaft has to be drilled and a bomb placed deep into the comet that is headed for earth…

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, not only must the bridge be built under the most trying circumstances, but it has to be finished by a specific date. The highlight, which shows not only the bridge being completed at the ninth hour just as the train arrives, but also in time for the explosion to occur that sends both bridge and train crashing into the river, has rarely being surpassed in effectiveness.


A time lock in a story defines a specific time period for the main story goal to be achieved in order to avoid calamity or failure. The device increases tension and helps to maintain the forward thrust of the story.

Backstories Revisited


Backstory Revisited

One of the potential problems of exposition/backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us. Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable. A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait. Without sufficient grounding, however, none of the above is achievable.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand, and backstory is provided as a solution to a dangerous situation. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.


Backstory is essential information the reader/audience must have in order to understand the story. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is a an effective way of making it unobtrusive.


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How to Start Your Stories

Starting line

Story Start

A great opening immediately hooks the reader or audience and stacks the odds of writing a successful story in your favour. In a previous post I talked about the importance of a strong first image. In this post I want to suggest four types of starts employed by skilled writers.

Action Start

This type of opening immediately catapults us into the hurly burly of the tale, refusing to yield a static moment or slackening in intensity or pace. Movies such as Speed and Die Hard are renowned for this kind of action early in the first act.

Shock Start

This opening typically highlights the formidable powers of the antagonist and by implication, the danger this presents to the protagonist. The explicit sex scene in Basic Instinct, for example, demonstrates the antagonist’s ability to use sex to manipulate the men around her, culminating in a shocking murder.

Contrasting Character Start

These openings immediately highlight the differences or incongruities between two lead characters and help to sustain interest throughout. In Lethal Weapon Riggs is a suicidal special forces cop whose crazy tactics conflict with the traditional approach of aging cop, Murdoch, who just wants to retire in one piece and with the minimum of fuss. Their contrasting styles drive the entire movie.

Twist Start

These openings mislead the audience or reader into believing one thing only to discover that quite the opposite is true. In The Matrix the lead character, Neo, is introduced as a hacker and merchant indulging in illegal activities as a way of life. We soon discover that this life is an illusion, and Neo is potentially the saviour of mankind.


Action, shock, contrasting character, and twists openings are just four types of starts used by writers to hook readers or audiences into their stories.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Increase Tension in your Story

Girl biting nils


Tension in stories primarily concerns the barely contained hostility or strained relations between individuals or groups. This differs from conflict which is more about disharmony and opposition between people who hold different ideas, goals, and beliefs. Both conflict and tension are invaluable in making stories more powerful and dramatic. In this post we look at seven ways to add tension to your scenes.

7 Ways to Increase Tension

1. Place your characters in a place they shouldn’t be in.

2. Have your characters make decisions that have severe consequences.

3. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that worsens conflict.

4. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that increases the danger to themselves.

5. Have your characters participate in socially, politically, and morally unacceptable actions.

6. Place your characters in a situation where they have to choose between two evils.

7. Have your characters overstep their natural boundaries.

Mario Salem said:

“Every chance I get, I put my characters in spots that make me uncomfortable. If I’m comfortable with where they are, it’s a boring script. I say ‘what’s the worst thing thing that could happen to this guy’ and then I write that in. My characters hate me and that’s what makes my scripts better.”

We would do well to heed this advice.


Tension is a necessary part of keeping the reader or audience hooked into your story. Use one or more of the 7 techniques mentioned in this post to help you achieve this goal.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Write Backstory



In this follow-up post we look at a very important aspect of effective storytelling—backstory. The following question immediately comes to mind:

Q: When is it useful to include backstory in your screenplay or novel?

A: When information from the past is needed in order to make sense of the present and future.

Three Principles

1. In writing backstory consider the following: Is it absolutely needed?
2. Is it economically executed?
3. Does it blend in seamlessly with the rest of the text?

Necessary Information

Include only information that is absolutely necessary to your story.

In a chilling early scene in Inglorious Basterds, for example, we learn that the SS’s Colonel Hans Landa’s mission is to find missing Jews in the French countryside whom he suspects are being protected from by French Farmers.

Economically Executed

Always try to deliver backstory in the most economical way.

In the same film, some of the backstory is revealed through Landa’s sinister, if well-mannered, speculation, interlaced with subtle threats to the dairy farmer’s family, that he suspects Perrier LaPadite of hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farm house. The dialogue, therefore, does double duty: 1. It reveals the reason Landa is interrogating LaPadite—he is aware of the French dairy farmer’s sympathies for his one-time Jewish neighbours. 2. It increases our suspense because the backstory becomes an indispensable part of the interrogation with an immediate threat to the farmer and his family.

Seamless Blending

Backstory blends seamlessly into the tale when it surreptitiously manages to drive the plot forward—as in the above example—rather than halting it In order to reveal background information. Because it becomes part of the forward thrust, there is no interruption to the story’s relentless march towards the climax. Interest and tension is actively maintained.


Backstory works best when it helps, rather than impedes, the forward-thrust of the plot. The three principles mentioned above provide a useful checklist in this regard.

The Basics of Scene Description

Building blocks

Description Basics:

In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen.

Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function. A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer, actor, and so on, how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light and move through the set. The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.

Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.

Three Levels of Description

For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:

A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.

B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.

C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.

The Basics of Scene Description

Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.

1. Describe your scenes in the present tense.

2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.

3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.

4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.

5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words evoke more about the character than I could say in one rambling paragraph.


Descriptions in a screenplay function as instructions for making scenes; they also help to draw in the reader through their vividness, brevity, and appropriateness.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.