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The Clock Ticks For The Story Goal
What's the main character's goal in the novel? What is it she must achieve?
If she must attain this goal in a certain time, and if missing the deadline will bring dire consequences, then the reader will watch the clock. The more time passes, the higher the tension. Examples:
Inspector Ingle needs to find the serial killer who slaughters young women on full moon nights. Will he find him before the moon is full again and another victim dies?
Daring Doug searches the treasure buried by Pirate Pugglewick, but Evil Eric also has a map. Will Daring Doug get there before Evil Eric does?
Miss Hester Hopeful will lose her inheritance unless she marries before Christmas. How will she find a suitable husband in just three months?
Ticking Clocks Within A Scene
You can also use this technique to make specific scenes more exciting.
What is the main character's goal in the scene? Arrange it so she has limited time to achieve this. Examples:
Cunning Connie secretly searches Nasty Nate's apartment. Nate will be back in half an hour. Will she find the incriminating document and get out of the place before he arrives?
Victor Villain has set the bomb to destroy Earth in thirty minutes. Can Henry Hero stop it on time?
At 3pm today, Innocent Iris will be executed for a murder she did not commit. Can Larry Lawyer persuade the false witness to tell the truth before then?
Types of Clock
Sometimes, the ticking clock is real: a grandfather clock which goes tock-tock-tock, a clock on the steeple of a German village church, an expensive Rolex watch with silver hands, a children's alarm-clock with a Winnie-the-Pooh face, or an egg-timer with purple sand.
The passing time can also be measured in other ways:
The weather (she needs to finish a task before the rain starts)
Rhythms of nature (she needs to get to the shore before the incoming tide reaches her, or she needs to get out of the castle before night falls and the vampires waken)
The actions of other people (she needs to reach the place before her rival does)
Progressing disaster (he needs to get across the bridge before it collapses completely)
How to Use the Ticking Clock
At the beginning of the scene, establish how much time the protagonist has to achieve his goal, or to accomplish something else. Emphasise the dire consequences should he fail to do it by that time (the vampires will get him, the bomb will explode, the hostages will be executed).
Alternatively, mention that a certain terrible thing will happen at a certain time. Then, throughout the scene, show several times how time is passing: the hands of the clock shifting, the sand running through the spout, the sun sinking towards the horizon.
Example Of A Ticking Clock
Dan checked his watch: 2.50.
He had fifteen minutes to save his daughter. Fifteen minutes to find the right house in this blasted street in blasted semi-suburbia, to break down the door, to fight her abductors, to free her from captivity, to get her to safety.
Each house in this street was the same: red brick, sash windows, white doors. No movement, nothing out of place. Not a single net curtain twitched.
Two dozen terraced homes, created by an unimaginative architect and a cost-saving builder, lived-in by labourers who craved middle-class respectability. Behind one of these pristine doors, Sharleen awaited execution.
They would kill her at 3.05. The blue hand of Dan's watch said 2.54.
Which door? Holy Hades, which? The one with the cute-puppy doormat? Or the flowered enamel number plate? The twinkling fairy lights, or the fat plastic Santa? Why, oh why, hadn't he pressed his daughter for details before she left home?
2.57. Eight minutes left.
Even the front gardens were the same, square patches of lawn, each with a winter-bare rose bush in the centre. He would smash his way into those fake respectable doors, splinter the wood, rip the hangings. But while he barged through one home, Sharleen would die in another. He had to get it right.
From number fourteen, a man emerged. Dark jacket, dog on a leash. “Excuse me, Sir.” Dan fought to keep his voice calm, even as his heart was thumping. “I wonder if you can help me. I'm looking for a girl. Fourteen, blonde. Wearing a school uniform -”
“Can't help you,” the man said coldly, giving Dan a look which said 'Paedophile!' and tugged at the leash. “Come, Buster.”
“Sir, it's not what you think...” The man didn't turn.
The church clock chimed. High, sharp rings: one, two, three. In five minutes, Sharleen would be dead.
Climax in the Last Possible Moment
To make the most of the 'ticking clock', let your protagonist achieve his goal in the final minute - or even the final second. This creates a tense, suspenseful climax which has the readers biting their nails.
If the bomb is rigged to explode at 12 o'clock, the hero disables it at 11.59.
If Miss Hester needs to get married before Christmas Day, then the wedding is by special license just before midnight on Christmas Eve.
If Daring Doug races against Evil Eric to reach the treasure, then he wins so narrowly that his rival arrives in time to see him open the treasure chest.
If Innocent Iris is to be hanged at 3pm, then the stay of execution arrives at 2.59.