Monday, October 24, 2022

Why Every Plot Needs A Ticking Clock

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes, characters need a little boost to get them moving so the plot doesn’t stall.

I tend to procrastinate, especially when I already have a lot that on my plate. My to-do list fills up, and any task that won’t get me into trouble if I ignore it falls lower and lower on the list until it’s 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, and 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, which makes readers care more about the outcome, so the novel gets read in a breathless rush as readers are desperate to see how it all turns out. Which is exactly what you want.

Here are ways a ticking clock can help your novel:

A sense of urgency raises the stakes.

We care about the detective trying to solve a murder because the serial killer will kill again, it’s just a question of when. The killer’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.

However it’s set up, readers wonder—will he catch the killer before he kills again?

(Here’s more with 5 Places in Your Novel That Probably Aren’t Terrible Enough)

Higher stakes makes readers worry more about the characters.

We care about the kid who has to face off against bullies twice her size, because we know how easy it will be for the bullies to pound the poor kid into the pavement. But if the bullies have told the whole school what they plan to do, running from them is only going to earn the kid more teasing and ridicule. Does she tell a teacher and risk being labeled a snitch?

Readers see trouble piling on and they worry—how the kid will get out of it?

(Here’s more with Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)

The more readers care, the more invested they’ll be in the story.

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. And the more she struggles, the more appealing that drink or drug looks.

Readers can’t help but care about her struggle—will she make it or will she slip up and fall?

(Here’s more with What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

Look at your current manuscript:

Are there deadlines for your protagonist’s goals? They don’t have to be mere hours or all is lost (though that’s good, too), but there should at least be a clear end date before disaster strikes in some way. The more important the goal, the tighter the deadline usually is. If you don’t see one, that’s a red flag the novel’s pacing is slow, so brainstorm ways to create tension-tightening deadlines.

Is there an overall ticking clock for the novel? There should be. You want a certain amount of pressure on your protagonist to act to resolve the novel’s core conflict. This not only keeps tensions high, but it speeds up the pacing and makes it clear to readers why the protagonist needs to solve this problem now. If you don’t see one, that’s a red flag the overall novel lacks conflict, so brainstorm ways to add a larger, looming threat to your story’s problem.

Are there consequences if the tasks aren’t completed? Even children recognize an empty threat when there’s no punishment for messing up. Make sure your deadlines come with consequences for missing them, and follow through on whatever terrible punishment you promised. If you don’t see one, that’s a red flag the novel lacks stakes, so brainstorm ways to add fear-worthy consequences to the plot.

Put deadlines on your novel’s 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 even more trouble.

If you do have a ticking clock, but no consequence for missing that deadline…

Add a consequence: What price does the protagonist have to pay for not completing the task in time? Who else might suffer? How? What would have turned out differently if the deadline hadn’t been missed?

Raise the stakes: How might existing stakes be made worse? Can they be bigger? More personal?

Put an “or else” in there so the price for failing is clear: Sometimes there is a consequence in the story, but the protagonist isn’t told about it so it’s “a surprise” to readers when it happens. Trouble is, if they can’t worry about it beforehand, the surprise falls flat. It’s usually better to let readers know what “or else” means way before it happens. That way, both the protagonist and the reader can worry the entire time.

(Here’s more with How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character and Propels Your Plot)

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

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and explore the ticking clocks in your story. Don’t have any? Brainstorm ways to put the pressure on your characters.

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

*Originally published September 2015. Last updated October 2022.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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. 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. 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. :)