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Tuesday, April 30

How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character and Propels Your Plot

By Sarah Skilton, @Sarah_Skilton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: There’s no greater motivator than a hard deadline (right writers?), and that’s just as true for our characters. Today, Sarah Skilton visits the lecture hall to share some tips on using a ticking clock to keep your plot and characters moving.

Sarah Skilton is a book blogger with Barnes & Noble as well as the author of two young adult novels, Bruised and High & Dry. Her first adult novel, Club Deception, was published by Grand Central in 2017. Last year she participated as a judge on the juvenile committee for the 2019 Edgar Awards.

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Take it away Sarah…

As writers, we know all stories require conflict. Putting our characters through the wringer is a good way to accomplish this; the more obstacles and stressors we throw in their paths, the better. How else would we, and readers, find out what our MCs are made of?

A good rule of thumb when introducing your main character is to open your story in the midst of a crises and watch how he or she scrambles to get out of it.

This accomplishes three things:
1. Instantly alerts the reader to the style and tone of the book (is it a comedy, romance, thriller, or mystery?)
2. Allows the reader to meet the MC under duress, right when their mettle is being tested

3. Increases the likelihood that a reader will be hooked and want to find out what happens next
Likewise, a ticking clock throughout a novel provides one of the most compelling antagonists of all: time. Deadlines that must be reached, and the fear of what will happen if they’re not, keeps readers turning pages. Best of all, a ticking clock scenario reveals character and propels the plot forward simultaneously.

In my just-released romantic comedy, FAME ADJACENT, I combined a Ticking Clock device with a Limited Funds device: i.e. I sent my protagonist, Holly Danner, on a time-sensitive road trip with very little cash.

A former child actor, Holly was the only cast member of a popular 1990s song-and-dance show, Diego and the Lion’s Den, who didn’t become famous. Twenty-five years later, there’s an anniversary special planned but Holly’s not invited. Incensed, she plans to crash the reunion on live TV and confront her famous ex-friends.

She’s highly motivated to get across the country in three days, but the odds are stacked against her; with no car and no cash, she must team up with a man she meets in internet rehab. If they run out of time or money, she’ll miss the anniversary and the chance to set the record straight.

How a Ticking Clock Propels the Plot
  • When every second counts, readers are motivated to keep turning pages.
  • A shortened timeline heightens the action and adds a sense of urgency to the story.
How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character
  • By pitting our characters against time, we also pit them against each other, especially if their priorities are not compatible.
  • Do they want the same thing, or are they at odds over what’s important and how to accomplish it? When the going gets tough, do they rally their inner resources to achieve their goals, or do they roll over and give up?
In FAME ADJACENT, Holly views Thom as infuriatingly levelheaded (because he doesn’t think she should confront her ex-friends); but in Thom’s view, Holly is acting impulsively as well as selling herself short by tying her self-worth to something out of her control: the arbitrariness of fame.

As they make their way across the country, they argue about how and where their money should be spent, how fast to drive, where to spend the night, and what to do when a variety of crises hit. On the flipside, they’re forced to bond in a brief period of time.

Their goals, conflicts and stakes are frequently at odds with one another’s, so when and if their objectives do line up, that allows sparks to fly (the romantic kind…)

How To Keep the Reader Informed about What’s at Stake


Every few chapters, I included either a countdown clock or a budget check-in so the reader can keep pace with the facts of the situation and the ever-diminishing hours and money available.

However, it’s important to let the plot breathe and give the reader space and time to absorb what’s happening. The entire book does not take place on the road or beholden to a rapid timeline, because that aspect of the story may lose its impact if it goes on too long. I made sure there were contrasts to the cross-country drive so the reader doesn’t become immune to the effects of the ticking clock. As a result, the first segment of the book takes place over several weeks, at a slower pace. That way, when the element of racing against time comes into play, it’s jarring and gives the plot a jumpstart.

Understanding and controlling your pacing is all about variety. It is the spice of life, after all!

Do you have a favorite Ticking Clock book? If you’ve written a Ticking Clock book, what elements and devices did you use to keep your readers invested?


Holly Danner has a complicated relationship with fame. It's not easy being the only cast member of a 1990s song-and-dance show who didn't become famous. When she was eleven, she used to do anything for a laugh (or at least a laugh-track) on "Diego and the Lion's Den." If she talked about it--which she almost never does--Holly might explain how her childhood best friends came to dominate the worlds of pop music, film, and TV while she was relegated to a few near-misses and a nanny gig for her niece. She'd even be telling the truth about making peace with the whole thing years ago.

But when she finds out there's a 25th anniversary for the show planned--a televised reunion, clip show, and panel--and she wasn't invited, it's time for an impromptu road trip to crash the event and set the record straight. Three problems: she's currently in Internet Rehab (perhaps she's not quite as well-adjusted as she believes...), she has no cash, and the only person who can get her across the country in time is Thom Parker, a handsome, infuriatingly level-headed patient who doesn't think she should confront her famous ex-friends.

FAME ADJACENT is a contemporary, realistic, and humorous look at love, friendship, and fame, as seen through the eyes of a girl who lived it--from the sidelines.

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