STORY ESSENTIALS: THE TICKING CLOCK
The ‘ticking clock’ goes by many names in storytelling. It is a literary device used to add suspense. Suspense, remember, is information withheld. For this particular device, the information withheld is typically whether or not the protagonist will accomplish his objective before a ‘time-bomb’ goes off. Let’s take a look at a short scene that involves a ticking clock, and see if you can figure out what it is.
* * *
Barry sprinted out of the bank, twenty-five thousand dollars cash in his gym bag. He hurried to his rusty grey Camry, turned the lock, swung the door, then crashed inside. He heard the sirens then gulped. Cops were on the way.
Barry searched both pockets for his keys. His cheap, cotton face mask was at a tilt, covering his eyes. He ripped it off to get a better view. Instead of spotting his keys, he caught the red and blue lights flickering in his rear view mirror. He should have been blazing down the highway. Instead he was parked and waiting. A dead duck.
But where were the damn keys? He grabbed two fistfuls of his light, thinning hair.
“This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening!”
His breath was chaotic. His eyes fidgeted from one corner of the car to the other. It was a mess, as always. He reached over and opened the brown gym bag he’d had the banker stuff the green bills into. He tossed the stacks of twenty into the backseat, one after another. Still, no keys.
He looked at the mirror again. The cops were close. He was finished, done for – his dream had changed from a beach house in the Bahamas to a nightmare that involved his dropping the soap next to Bubba, who had a tattoo of his mom on one arm and a porn star on the other.
“Where the fu-“
He rolled down his outdated, turn-style window, and reached outside. There they were, just on the other side of the door. He’d forgotten to pull them out after unlocking it.
The sirens were blaring now. He took one last fleeting glimpse as he started the engine. The cops screeched to a halt as he turned the key, blew black smoke through his muffler, then pressed the pedal to the medal.
Too late for that now. Barry was on his way to the Bahamas, and he was going to get there. Some way, some how…
* * *
Did you figure it out? The ‘ticking clock’ in this example is the approaching authorities. The element of suspense, or information withheld, can be summed up best with this question – “Will Barry find his keys in time to start his engine and escape before the cops arrest him?”
Not knowing the answer to that question is what compels you to keep reading. If you read yesterday’s lesson, you also may have noticed the elements of exterior conflict, or obstacles, that got in the way of Barry’s quest.
Barry’s quest – Escape the crime scene; get to the Bahamas
Exterior obstacles – Misplaced keys, approaching authorities
Interior Conflicts – Barry’s inability to keep cool. His state of panic was the reason he was unable to think rationally and locate his keys. Barry must learn to compose himself in high-pressure situations if he is going to succeed in the long run.
Hope this helps!
– Thomas M. Watt
– Script analyst for SpecScout.com
– Author of A New Kingdom