The Ticking Clock in Stores

Ticking clock in Next
Next derives much of its tension from the ticking clock narrative device

A ticking clock in stories is a structural device that imposes a time limit during which a problem has to be solved.

Failure to do so in the allotted time renders the story goal unachievable and the mission a failure.

The ticking clock in films

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.

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.

36 Hours has a ticking clock that is even more tightly woven into the story’s structure. The invasion of Europe is but days away. The Nazis have little time to extract the date and landing site of the Allied forces from James Garner. The story might still work by concentrating on how Garner is seduced into talking. The ticking clock, however, imbues the story with a tension that could not be otherwise achieved.

The ticking clock in stories is often, quite literally, a clock counting down to zero before the bomb explodes.

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, the bridge must be built under the most trying circumstances and finished by a specific date. The explosion must occur in time to send both bridge and train crashing into the river. The tension is almost unbearable.

Summary

A ticking clock defines a specific time for the main story goal to be achieved to avoid calamity. The device increases tension and helps to maintain the forward thrust of the story.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

3 thoughts on “The Ticking Clock in Stores”

  1. The American television series 24 followers the ticking clock structure for every single episode – Something happens and the events that follow take place over the next 24 hours. Nine out of ten action movies also like to make use of this formula including the sixth installment of Mission Impossible. It’s a very effective method to build tension and keep an audience glued to the screen. However the problem with this formula is that it is to effective. It keeps ratings high put not for character development but rather for delivering a suspense filled action movie that goes well with a tv dinner. The ticking cloak method has been used since the silence era when cowboys were saving girls tied to train tracks while the editor cuts to a steaming locomotive.

    In short : The ticking cloak is fun to watch but is flawed in the sense that it leaves little space for character relations.

    1. Gerhard, there’s no reason why the ticking clock has to rob the writer of his ability to develope his characters more fully. On the contrary, placing characters under the stress of a ticking clock can help deepen their responses and reveal their true natures.

      1. I suppose that’s true. In films like Beauty and the Beast the Prince has over a decade to make someone fall in love with him before his curse becomes permanent. That’s a lot of time for some serious soul searching.

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