Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Guest Post by Martina Boone: The Importance of a Ticking Clock

Literary Agent Jill Corcoran once blogged about ways to activate a story, using Gayle Forman's novel, If I Stay, as an example of a great beginning. She wrote:

Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence… a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:

     Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

But there’s another reason that first sentence of Gayle Forman’s works, really works. It’s a tiny little piece that comes before that first sentence. Here's how the novel really starts:

7:09 A.M.      

     Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

Do you see it? It's there in bold letters. The ticking clock.

Because that clock is there, the reader knows to combine Gayle’s "it" with a timeline. We know something is going to happen soon. We know "it" is bad, because why bother with a clock that precise if it isn't a countdown of sorts. And we know it has to do with the snow. Sort of. So now, we're hooked. We have to know what "it" is, and why it wasn't completely to do with the snow. And we have an implied promise that it isn't going to take the author long to get there.

As readers, we haven't thought through any of this. It's simply there, in the back kitchen of our consciousness, if I may borrow the phrase from Kipling. And once it's there, it has a hold on us.

Even a reader who wouldn't normally read a book about bow-tie-wearing dads, or little brothers who let out war whoops, or mothers who work in travel agent's offices--who cares about all that stuff at the beginning of a book, right?--is going to be curious enough to read a little further. Sure enough, Forman delivers on the promise. At 8:17 a.m., a dad who isn't great at driving gets behind the wheel of a rusting Buick and.... Well, we know we only have a few more pages.

Even after the accident, the clock doesn't stop. It continues until 7:16 the next morning, because Mia is trying to make her decision, and all along, all through the twists and turns and intricately woven scraps of memory and medical magic, that clock keeps us focused on the fact that something life-changing is going to happen. Soon. Soon. So you can't stop reading.

Building Suspense with a Ticking Clock

Having an actual Jack Bauer 24-style ticking clock only works if something momentous is going to happen:

• An event, accident, or necessary meeting

• A deadline given to prevent consequences

• An opportunity that can, but shouldn't, be missed

• Elapsed time from a precipitating event

The Clock

The clock is mainly a metaphor. You can use any structural device that forces the protagonist to compress events. It can be the time before a bomb explodes or the air runs out for a kidnapped girl, but it can also be driven by an opponent after the same goal: only one child can survive the Hunger Games, supplies are running out in the City of Ember....

Only three things are required to make a ticking clock device work in a novel:

• Clear stakes (hopefully escalating)

• Increasing obstacles or demand for higher thresholds of competence

• Diminishing time in which to achieve the goal

Whether your clock is an actual countdown to a date or time of day, or some other method of event compression, it creates tension. It limits the time your characters have to think and act, forces them into decisions--perhaps rash ones--and, used skillfully, reinforces the consequences of failure. All of this creates urgency for your characters, and urges the reader to turn the pages.

A ticking clock doesn't make sense for every novel, but whatever novel you are writing now, consider whether your stakes could be further dramatized by adding a time limitation of some sort.

* * *

Martina Boone is the author of SIBA Book Award nominated Compulsion, book one in the romantic Southern Gothic trilogy, the Heirs of Watson Island, from Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, which was an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookstores Alliance, a Goodreads Best Book of the Month and YA Best Book of the Month, and an RT Magazine Best of 2014 Editor’s Pick. The second book in the trilogy, Persuasion, will be published October 27, 2015. She is also the founder of as well as, the three-time Writers Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" site providing craft, inspiration, workshops, agent-judged contests, and giveaways.


  1. Great post! And I agree with everything Martina says. The sense of a ticking clock brings great urgency to the story. I am reminded of my editorial notes for The Inquisitor's Mark when my editor said I needed to improve the pacing. I was worried because I thought she wanted me to stick in more action scenes or cut words to make the book shorter. "No," she clarified. "I want you to spell out the stakes better in every chapter. I want you to remind the reader what the MC has to get done, what his deadline is, and what will happen if he fails."

    Of course, I knew all those things in my mind, but she wanted me to keep reminding the reader. To improve my pacing, I had to ADD words, not cut them.

  2. Interesting idea. I have read novels where I somehow know I'm waiting for something big to happen and it makes me eager to read on and find out the details. It can be overdone though - too much of the obvious, 'little did she know what was coming next' are just annoying.

  3. Awesome. I'm all for the ticking clock. It IS the device that draws the reader forward through a story. I think without one, we risk losing our readers to boredom. Granted there are genres it doesn't work for.

  4. I've been trying to add a ticking clock in my latest piece. One idea I've hear is to give them a ticking clock (say, the hero has 12 hours to find the bomb until it goes off) then to cut that time in half. So about 3/4 through the book, have the bad guy call and say he only has one hour left instead of 4. Great post!

  5. Really interesting post - I've not really thought about using a clock like this before.

  6. Great post! I loved the examples Martina used. So clearly laid out to prove her point.

    By the way, I just got to meet Martina in person at YA Fest. :) She's very sweet.

  7. Awesome tips! I'm going to have to put this to work in one of my manuscripts.

  8. so interesting!! I'll have to remember this, since tension is something I tend to lack in my stories!

  9. What a wonderful post! I even have If I Stay on my nightstand to read and I think I've reread that first page like a dozen times because it's so compelling right off the bat. Now I want to figure out how to incorporate a "clock" into one of my future manuscripts. What great advice!

  10. Great tips for improving the stakes and pacing (insightful comments, too!). Now to figure out how to make the time limitation idea work in quieter stories without horrific events taking place.

  11. Great post! It does make me wonder if I could add in a ticking clock to my current WIP--I do think it could work. Thanks for the great examples!

  12. I've tried to do that before, though I think the silliness of my stories end up undermining my tension. Plus actual clocks aren't a thing for people from my world. :) Hard to put a time to it when they use the sun and not clocks.

  13. Excellent post that made me give a second look to my WIP. Thank you!

  14. Great post and a wonderful technique to use when possible! Also, I loved If I Stay. Couldn't put it down. :)


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