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Monday, September 28

Why Every Plot Needs A Ticking Clock

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I don’t know about you, but I tend to procrastinate. My to-do list fills up, and the tasks that won’t get me into trouble if I ignore them fall lower and lower on the list until they’re forgotten. This can be problematic in life, but it’s deadly for a plot.

If the novel’s problem can be resolved “whenever” and it doesn’t matter when that happens, there’s no sense of urgency to the story. No urgency lowers tension, low tension makes it harder for readers to care, and a lack of caring means the book will probably wind up forgotten at the bottom of a to-read list.

Nobody wants that for their novel.

So give your plot a ticking clock.

A ticking clock puts time limits on when the protagonist must resolve a problem, and gives a deadline for events to happen. It creates urgency, thus raising the tension, and makes readers care more about the outcome, and the novel gets read in a breathless rush as readers are desperate to see how it all turns out.

We care about the detective trying to solve a murder because the serial killer will kill again, it’s just a question of when. And that when is spelled out in the story. He’s on a lunar cycle and the next full moon is in three days. Or a body shows up every Saturday in a very public part of town. Readers wonder—will he catch the killer before he kills again?

We care about the woman suffering with an addiction because she’s trying to sober up before her daughter’s wedding. As the day approaches and the stress grows, it gets harder and harder for her to keep her promise to her child. We can’t help but fear for her—will she make it or will she slip up and fall?

The ticking clock lights a fire under our characters and makes sure they’re not lying around and taking it easy. It’s the literary equivalent of “do it by the time I get home or else.”

Scan through your scenes in your current WIP:
  • Are there deadlines for your protagonist’s goals?
  • Is there an overall ticking clock for the novel?
  • And just as vital—are there consequences if the tasks aren’t completed?

If not, how can you add one? Put limits and deadlines on your plot goals so your characters have to work hard to complete those all-important tasks. Even better—if they’re rushing, they’ll likely make mistakes, which allows you to craft tougher obstacles and cause them more trouble.

Do you have a ticking clock, but no real consequence for missing the deadline? Add a consequence. Raise the stakes. Put that “or else” in there so there’s a price for failing.

When your characters fear failing, so will your readers, and that will make the story all the more compelling to read.

What are some of your favorite ticking clocks? Do you have a ticking clock in your current novel?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I hadn't really thought about time limits from the reader's point of view, although you are right, of course. When I started my 1st draft, the timeline was a year for my protagonist, but by chapter eleven I decided it would make the book too long. Plus, for my story, just how much could happen in a year that would be relevant? I changed the limit to six months.

    1. It all depends on what you show, and there are stories that take place over years but still maintain tension and strong pacing. But deadlines do make things a little more urgent.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I have one time bomb, but I'm wondering if my subplot could have a time bomb also. Not as dramatic, but still it would add tension. What do you think?

    1. Jackie, that's a good point. I think it would add to the tension.

    2. Sure. More deadlines add tension and make things harder overall. You can never have too much tension:)

  3. Anonymous10:35 AM EDT

    Another great article, Miss Hardy! I just want to thank you for this wonderful blog. I've become a better writer over the months I've been practicing your advice. (:

    1. Thanks so much, and you're most welcome. Hearing that made my day :)

  4. Just release my mystery with a ticking clock, and I admit it made for a much more fun story to write. Edisto Jinx is about a series of deaths on a tourist beach - one each two-week period in August for the past 6 years. One happens as the story opens. The beach writes them off as accidents due to water, booze, happenstance, but nobody faces the fact that a serial killer might just vacation there every year to fulfill his one murder. My protagonist, a former detective, refuses to believe in coincidence, and she accepts that challenge, against the wishes of the commercial community that doesn't want the press. Now I'm searching for another such time bomb in my current WIP. It's not's that easy.

    1. Nice :) Sounds like fun, too. Grats on the release!

  5. Hey Janice,

    I do have that ticking clock. My MC doesn't have any insulin. She lost on a mountain. She knows time is running out. This was a fabulous post.

  6. Anonymous1:49 PM EDT

    Great idea! Now I (a newbie wannabe writer) understand why I couldn't seem to tighten my WIP. It just wondered on with no real "or else" situation. Thank you so much for this blog.

    1. Most welcome. Often, the fix is something simple we just didn't know or haven't yet seen. :)