How To Use A Ticking Clock To Crank Up Your Next Screenplay

Ticking Clock

By Devon Forward

Successfully crafting tension is paramount to writing a salable script that entertains audiences. Being able to sufficiently raise the dramatic tension will make or break your story. Whether you are working in a genre that depends on tension, like action and adventure, or something slower, like a character driven period-drama, crafting tension and escalating the narrative stakes are essential to good screenwriting. One plot device that writers often use to create high stakes and ramp up tension is the Ticking Clock.

A Ticking Clock is essentially a time limit or deadline that adds constraints, obstacles, and a very definitive moment in time in which our protagonist must act. It’s generally an if-then scenario. If something doesn’t happen, then this will happen. Simple, right? It gives your protagonist a problem to be solved, and clear consequences if they don’t succeed.

The Ticking Clock plot device is a common mechanism writers’ use to move their story forward, ratchet up the tension and build emotion for their characters. There are plenty of different ways this shows up in movies and television, and you’ve seen it often, whether you realize it or not.


A Ticking Clock Can Be Almost Anything

A Ticking Clock isn’t always a literal clock, although it can be, or it can show up in a variety of forms. An example of a literal ticking clock can be found in Cinderella, with the clock ticking down to midnight when the Fairy Godmother’s magic wears off. Another great example of a race against the clock is Speed. In this movie, a bomb on a bus is rigged to explode if it goes slower than 50 mph. The Ticking Clock here is the speed of the bus. Just like the bus keeps driving with urgency, the Ticking Clock plot device maintains the fast-paced momentum of the story and keeps the audience engaged and on the edge of their seat.

While a physical ticking clock works really well, you can go in another direction and have a more figurative Ticking Clock. Romantic comedies tend to fall into this category. Just look at the movie Sixteen Candles. Molly Ringwald’s Sam is hoping that her sixteenth birthday will bring great changes to her life, particularly when it comes to boys. The deadline? The end of her birthday. The goal? To get Jake Ryan to like her. In Bridesmaids, it’s the upcoming wedding. In Knocked Up, the birth of the baby.

The Ticking Clock has been used in stories long before someone put a name to it. Alongside Cinderella, a lot of old fairy tales use this plot device. In Hansel and Gretel, Gretel has to rescue her brother before the witch eats him, while the classic tale of The Little Mermaid is about a mermaid who has to get a human to fall in love with her or she’ll die of a broken heart.

It doesn’t matter what genre your story is. A Ticking Clock works with all genres, and it doesn’t even have to be the main obstacle in the script. Many people include Ticking Clocks in subplots or small scenes, like when someone’s running late and racing to catch a train. Whether it’s used in moderation or you construct your whole story around it, it’s a very easy way to increase tension.


It Clearly Establishes the Dramatic Stakes and Timeline

The Ticking Clock sets up a clear timeline for your story, and instantly establishes the dramatic stakes for the protagonist. For example, nothing’s really up in the air in an action film like Taken, where the protagonist outright says to the antagonist what they plan to do, and why. They kidnapped his daughter, so he’s going to find and kill them to get her back. With that one sentence, you know what the protagonist hopes to accomplish and why, and it’s easy to imagine what happens if he doesn't succeed. The stakes are life and death.

The Ticking Clock sets up a very real threat for the main character, with harsh consequences if they fail. It’s straightforward and gives the audience clear expectations. With Taken, the stakes are very high, and the audience can’t help but worry about what might happen if Neeson fails to save his daughter. The suspense builds and builds until she’s finally rescued.

If you use a Ticking Clock in your script, remember not to make it too easy on your protagonist. Your character should face a lot of difficult obstacles along the way, both physical and emotional, adding even more levels to the tension.

While the Ticking Clock helps your story move along at a steady pace, it can also be really helpful during the writing process. If you are using this plot device, you have a clear path laid out for where your characters should end up. Just like how you create an outline before starting a script, a Ticking Clock can help keep the story on track as you write.


The Ticking Clock Piles on the Pressure

This plot device is great for putting intense pressure on your characters. While the Ticking Clock creates a clear goal or end point for the story, it also pushes the protagonist along. With the character’s main goal or desire established early on, the audience understands how much they have to lose if they fail. This makes it easy to empathize with the main character and really care about what happens to them.

The shorter and stricter the timeline, the more intense the pressure, and the bigger the emotional payoff is for the audience at the end. Looking at Titanic as an example, the stakes are huge, with the Ticking Clock being the ship as it slowly sinks. As the water rises, the pressure gets more intense for everyone on the ship trying to escape.

The audience feels that tension too and they desperately want Jack and Rose to make it, but the longer it takes for them to get to safety, the smaller their chance of survival is. In this case, the audience already knows that Rose survives. Despite the evidence in front of them, the tension is so intense and well done that they still worry that she might not make it.

The Ticking Clock plot device is a great tool to consider using in your writing. By setting high stakes and a deadline, the Ticking Clock instantly adds tension, weight, and gravity to any story.

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