A while back, on the written recommendation of Nathan Shumate, I bought a fascinating book on writing action scripts written by William C. Martell. Martell is a professional screenwriter who has sold quite a few scripts, and purports to know (with excellent reason) what it is that the people who make films want to buy. There are quite a few chapters of the book devoted to various tricks that the screenwriter can use to involve the audience in the narrative, among them the classic Ticking Clock.
A few days ago, I read Orson Scott Card’s review of the recently released Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time. In a otherwise mildly positive review where he mocked the premise of the movie but praised its ability to interest the audience, Card had this to say about a scene where the mother of Timberlake’s character dies in his arms, as her time literally runs out:
“…the ticking clock doesn’t work anymore. It’s already a complete failure. The moment we see countdowns or clocks we in the audience get a tired feeling and think, yeah yeah yeah, there’s a time limit, and instead of getting more tense with each new view of the clock (which always takes ten times as long to get to zero as the clock says it’s taking), we just get more impatient.
“Impatience is not the goal, folks. But that’s what ticking clocks now achieve. We’re no longer thinking “Oh, hurry, you’ve only got a minute left! Will they make it?” We’re thinking, “Get on with it already, skip to zero, do what you’re going to do and put us out of our misery!”
Card has a point. The Ticking Clock has been so much a staple of every genre, in both movies and television, that lampshading it is now also a staple. One thinks of the classic Fort Knox sequence in Goldfinger where the nuclear device stops its countdown at (ha ha) 007. And one of my favorite recent examples comes from the parody-comedy Galaxy Quest, where the self-destruct device on the real-world Protector can be halted before it reaches one second…but it will still count down to that point, because that’s where it always stopped on the show.
But I am not as pessimistic as Card. The Ticking Clock became a staple trick for a reason, and if used properly (that is, with an understanding of what it is), I think it will still work. Here are some examples of how it can be deployed for maximum effect:
Use it as the setup for either the plot or the climax, but nowhere else. A Ticking Clock used to launch the hero into the journey is simply a part of the framework of the story, putting the hero under immediate pressure. If I assign myself to investigate some odd deaths associated with a bizarre mystery tape, that may or may not be at the top of my to-do list. If I watch the tape and it puts me under a death curse that will activate in seven days, the priority of the mystery is definitely upgraded. And, of course, if I have a young child who watches the tape and falls under the same curse, then that’s another Ticking Clock for me to contend with.
Using a Ticking Clock in the climax is trickier, because so many second-rate stories have already employed it. (Though the original Rocky is a genuine cinema classic, for example, its inferior sequels strain credulity on just how many times Rocky’s final fights reach the last seconds of the last round.) That’s not to say you can’t put one there, though. It’s a great time to have one. But I don’t think you should ever put a Ticking Clock in the middle of the movie. It’s too strong a device to be used for a simple story transition or plot twist.
Keep the Ticking Clock in plain sight, but hide the goal or the solution. Too many Ticking Clocks are set up approximately like this. The hero knows the clock is counting down from X minutes, and the MacGuffin Device needs to be disabled before the clock hits zero. This doesn’t work because the goal is too obvious, which undercuts the suspense that the Ticking Clock is trying to create. After all, we know that the hero wins in most stories. So we’re not surprised when the hero manages to disable the MacGuffin and save the world, or the country, or the East Lansing Barbecue Social, just in the nick of time. In fact, we’re a bit bored.
So keep the clock front and center. But make sure that your hero is in what looks like a no-win scenario. This will make the audience wonder how on earth the hero can hope to pull off a miracle. The finest example I can think of here is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. At the climax of the movie, the villain Khan sets the Genesis Device (the MacGuffin of the film) to explode, which would destroy him – and the heroes along with him. Admiral Kirk has four minutes to get his ship out of range of the device. But the Enterpise is crippled so badly that she’ll never be able to reach a safe distance in time. The characters seem trapped. Death is almost certain. We can see that Kirk can’t think of anything to do, and we can’t see a way out either. The solution to the problem is thus a genuine revelation…and one of the franchise’s most celebrated moments.
Hide the Ticking Clock, but keep the goal in plain sight. What I mean here is that the hero should have a clear-cut goal, and know there is only a certain amount of time to accomplish it. How much time there is, though, is an unknown factor. In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled “Into the Woods,” Buffy’s having relationship trouble. Her military boyfriend Riley decides to accept an assignment which would take him out of town permanently, unless Buffy wants him to stay. She chooses to let him go. Later, a talk from her friend Xander convinces her that she should give their relationship a chance, and she runs to the place she knows he’ll be. Is there enough time for her to make it? The sequence is genuinely suspenseful, precisely because we have no standard by which to measure the passage of time. We only know Riley is leaving soon. (It also helps, of course, that we genuinely care about the characters.)
Surrender to the Ticking Clock, and center your entire concept around its existence. One number: 24.
Can you think of any other ways?