Category Archives: Tension

Creating Tension with a Ticking Clock

How can you tell when a clock is really tense?
When it’s all wound up.

Creating tension by using some form of a limit is one of the easiest methods to ratchet up the tension in any manuscript, from novel to play to movie script. When many newer authors first hear about adding in a “ticking clock”, they immediately think of a suspense movie where the hero has to defuse the bomb before the time reaches zero. While this is a very common trope, it goes beyond that limited scope.

What’s a Ticking Clock?

A ticking clock is an example of something that is constrained and must be dealt with, lest the characters have to deal with serious (and often dire) consequences if they fail. The entire plot can be constructed around the ticking clock, or it can be something smaller, such as a scene, where the protagonists have to get something done immediately.

In honor of Carrie Fisher’s passing recently, I’ve been re-watching Star Wars. They have a whole slew of ticking clocks embedded within the script. For example, Han, Chewie, and Luke have to rescue Leia from the Death Star’s prison block because she is scheduled for execution. The ticking clock is the time limit they have to rescue her, and the consequence of failure is the character will be killed. Another example is Luke and Leia running away from the guards and getting trapped by the missing walkway. Under fire, Luke closes the door and blasts the controls, not thinking that they probably control the retracted walkway. The Stormtroopers are trying to open the door — that’s the ticking clock. Luke and Leia have to escape, or else they’ll be shot — that’s the consequence of failure. The audience was sitting on the edges of their movie theatre chairs in 1977, wondering if they’d make it. That’s tension.

Got Any Examples Without Using a Clock?

Sure! How about the old black and white movie “House on Haunted Hill” with Vincent Price? There are two versions of a ticking clock in that movie. There’s the usual version we talked about (the characters have to survive the night in a haunted house) plus the characters are getting killed off one by one. That’s a countdown where we’re wondering who the killer is — he or she must be with the house guests. Will we find out before they run out of living people? Is the killer even human?

I Write (Insert Genre Here). Can I Use a Ticking Clock?

The ticking clock method of generating tension in a story can be used anywhere in fiction. Here’s some more examples:

  • Western: Sandra has to ride the last stagecoach to Cheyenne Wells to see her mortally wounded cavalry husband and tell him that she’s pregnant. The stagecoach is overcrowded and the occupants are dying one at a time. (Three clocks: a time limit for Sandra to reach her husband, else he dies without knowing he will be a father; the passengers are dying one by one so who is the killer; and the killer must be done before the stage reaches Cheyenne Wells.)
  • Romance: Barb has to get to the church on time to prevent the wedding of the childhood sweetheart she’s still in love with to a manipulative, evil woman. (Clocks: Prevent the wedding; Barb telling him that she is in love with him before he’s married.)
  • Science Fiction: A captain has to get to a planetary system in a disputed sector to rescue a plague research team because the local sun will go nova. Unfortunately, someone drops a vial and catches the plague. (Clocks: Get to the planet to save the team before the sun goes boom; will they be able to find a cure for the plague before they all die; can they deal with any enemies they meet on the way to the planet quickly enough to save the team.)
  • Fantasy: Gnorl has enough magic to do three more powerful spells. Can he and Kahzoo, his ever-drunk swordfighting friend, save the princess before she is forced to marry the evil Prince Mal of Serenity? (Clocks: Limit of three spells; can Kahzoo stay sober long enough to fight; can they save the princess before Gnorl is out of power and Kahzoo’s liver goes supernova; prevent the wedding.)

Setting up a ticking clock is a particularly good way for beginning writers to add tension to their stories. Most writers are familiar with the general idea and they’ve probably seen enough of them in the movie theatres.

The most important things to setting up a ticking clock/limited something scenario are:

  • Something must actually be limited or constrained. Time is the most used example, but anything can be used as long as it is clear that there are a certain number and no more.
  • The consequences of failing to complete the task must be severe. The audience must be concerned that the threatened character(s) or things (like a planet) will be irrecoverably damaged, hurt, or lost entirely.
  • Never give the protagonists a reprieve. Keep the pressure on — in fact, ramp it up more as they go. Maybe the wedding is moved up a day or the plague ship is running out of fuel so they’ll have to land in a populated area to get some.
  • Give the audience something when/if the protagonists do finish the task successfully. The heroine gets a kiss from her true love; the ship’s doctor gets promoted for finding the cure; the lady riding the stagecoach figures out who the killer is and stabs him through the heart with a hatpin. There should be some form of emotional release.

Look at the time! Get back to writing!


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

Do It Again With Feeling

As an actor those are words you never want to hear because it means you’re not doing your job, you’re not performing the scene with enough emotion to make it feel real to the audience. As a writer we’re susceptible to the same mistake. Except it’s not necessarily our characters that might not feel real. It can just as easily be the conflict itself.

I realize that it may sound strange for a story’s conflict to be the thing that makes it real and interesting. It’s the reason we turn the page. We have to know if Harry Potter defeats the villain of the month! But if the conflict itself is only half of the equation. The other half — the half that makes it feel real and creates the tension — is how the conflict affects the characters internally.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction is just as true in physics as it is in fiction. In a fight scene, when the villain throws a punch at the hero, if the hero doesn’t react, either by dodging or being knocked back by the blow when it connects, it’s not believable. Likewise if the young heartthrob dumps the heroine for no good reason. If the heroine doesn’t run away crying or punches them in the face (my personal favorite) then the whole scene falls flat. Without the reaction it’s like it didn’t happen at all. And the reaction doesn’t have to be physical. I’ll use the same examples again to illustrate what I mean. When the not-so-happy couple breaks up, their emotional reaction is just as important as the physical one that follows. Is the heroine angry? Is she in disbelief? Is her heart broken? Is the heartthrob sad? Are they defensive? Impatient? In shock that they’re about to get punched? It’s the same thing in the fight scene. Is combatant A frightened of their opponent or are they confident that they’ll win?

All of this detail isn’t just to fill out the scene and make it breathe. It also increases the tension in your story. All of that description and reaction takes time and that’s time in a critical moment of the story where your readers are waiting for big punch. All the while you’re bringing them deeper into the character’s mind. That punch isn’t being thrown at a stranger, it’s being thrown at them.

It continually amazes me how adding depth can solve so many problems at once. I almost want to call it the Swiss Army knife of writing. Granted, like any tool it helps having some experience using it. I mean you can’t cut cheese with a corkscrew…though it would be fun to watch someone try. Adding the wrong emotion or reaction will do more damage then good. But avoiding that pitfall is a subject for another day.

Creating Tension in Mysteries

Mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Inherent in that puzzle is the expectation of tension created by the anticipation of a sympathetic sleuth’s ordeal and the promises made by the writer. There are a few points to be kept in mind to create tension in a mystery.

A good mystery writer incites anxiety, stress, dread, worry, speculation, fretting, and curiosity. Experiencing those emotions is what makes a story a page turner. How is this done? By creating sympathetic characters, characters to cheer for, and then throwing in mini-conflicts, obstacles, failures, and reminding us what’s at stake for the protagonist. It can be as simple as personal pride, a need not to be a failure, or as grand as a family member held as hostage. Or, if they know the plan such as a schedule, or if characters reveal an agenda or secrets and the clock is ticking on those, the reader thinks they know what to expect but something gets screwed up, or the plans happen in a manner which propels the story and tension is created.

Characters who are care and can be cared about hook the reader emotionally. When readers care, they perceive tension when information is with held because they are empathizing and sympathizing. They want answers as much as the sleuth does. They worry knowing that the murderer lurks around the corner and the protagonist is headed right for him. Or, it’s about the presumed impact, abstract consequences in which the reader’s anticipation of what could happen escalates. Danger approaches, the sleuth is in peril and tension builds as the reader worries for the sleuth. Tension , however, isn’t all about action scenes. It can also be about the promise of danger.

The promise of danger is equally if not more effective than action itself. The moments between promises, the waiting, not knowing creates tension in mysteries. The false hopes of an answer – that red herring – an answer to a promise which bore no fruit, all of these create tension. As a writer you must ask yourself what you can promise that will go wrong? The rule about promises and action is this: anticipation creates tension while action is payoff and deflates tension and reader attention. Have you ever watched a movie, a television show or read a book where the sexual tension between two characters is high? Create a situation where they consummate that tension and poof! it is gone for the reader too. That is also true of answering the big questions, solving the big pieces of the puzzle too soon.

Red herrings in mystery work because they don’t answer the big questions – they create more. The reader anticipates the conflict, the reasons for a the red herring’s actions, and the tension mounts because we really don’t know the truth, just that so much is implied. Then, we learn that the herring is red, the criminal is on the loose, the clock still ticks, and the mystery still is unresolved. It’s all part of a mystery’s story structure: creating clues that indicate one or more suspects, include red herring clues and suspects, lead the sleuth down specific paths in the maze of the investigation and eventually redirect the sleuth to the criminal. This structure is a framework for creating tension.

Tension in a mystery isn’t created by merely mentioning the crime or the criminal in the beginning, or by asking the great unresolved question in the beginning and then forgetting about it. The reader needs to be reminded, forced back to that unresolved question – what if the criminal isn’t captured? What if the lost jewels aren’t returned? What if? What if? How upsetting will it be if the sleuth loses?

Not answering questions immediately creates tension and in a mystery there are many opportunities for this. Sometimes a question needs to be answered quickly to propel a story forward. The path of the red herring was a dead and in the maze of the puzzle, so we must explore another path. Remember this rule though: If a question is answered immediately, it’s a small surprise with a small payoff. If it’s stretch out over several pages or chapters, it must have a big surprise with a big payoff. Put another way – each time a question is asked, a promise is made. Each time the stakes are raised a promise is made. Readers need you to deliver on those promises. If it’s the biggest crime of the century, then the payoff for the sleuth must be big. And, it can’t be predictable. Readers think they know what will happen, but they want to be surprised by the answer. Knowing that you will deliver on the surprise also creates tension because it leaves readers wondering what will happen next.

An effective, yet seldom talked about tool to create tension, is for the writer to know the antagonist intimately. In a mystery, the antagonist creates the inciting incident, the sleuth reacts, and then they escalate their reactions and actions. Toss in additional obstacles created by others, family, bosses, coworkers, the justice system, and we’re left wondering if our sleuth will succeed or fail.

Tension is also created when a protagonist cares about something other than just the mystery at hand – the son with the unsuitable fiancé, a homeless person, a pet, or a friend’s crisis. Any of these can conflict with and impact the sleuth’s ability to solve the greater mystery. Multiple conflicts lend themselves to a protagonist’s personal theme – we all know that patterns exist in our lives, we’re attracted to the same messes, we have a limited set of skills to approach them – choices must be made and through those decisions and actions, characters reveal themselves. More importantly, multiple conflicts lead to subplot which affects the sleuth and impacts the sleuth’s ability to solve the crime.

Sympathetic characters, a myriad of suspects, conflict both personal and professional, an antagonist who raises the stakes, promises and payoffs, and unresolved questions, these are the staples of creating tension in mysteries.

Tension

If you pull on an object with a rope, the rope will stretch slightly (often imperceptibly). This stretch in the rope will cause the rope to be taut (e.g. under tension) which allows the rope to transfer a force from one side of the rope to the other.

We’ve all seen movies or read books that had us either figuratively or literally sitting on the edges of our seats. Those crazy action sequences where you can’t see a way out for the hero, or the moment when the love interest has to come clean about lying to the heroin in order to win her heart, or that breathless heartbeat right before the couple’s first kiss.

As a writer, your reader’s emotions become ropes, and your story the force pulling on them. Not pushing, but pulling. Drawing them in, keeping them wondering how the guy can date two women on the same night and get away with it, or watching as the characters step farther and farther into the haunted mansion.

I remember reading Fellowship of the Rings for the first time. It was early in the morning and I was in my creepy basement on the treadmill. I only turned one light on so I could read while I walked. This particular morning I found myself in the section of the book where the fellowship enters the Mines of Moria. The prose is of course beautiful, the language masterfully chosen to set the air of fear, suspicion, and abandonment.

By the time the party reaches the room where Balin made his last stand, I was on the edge of my seat. They find the book and begin to read about how the dwarves were overwhelmed by the orcs. Then the drums begin.

Boom.

Doom.

My heart was pounding far faster than it should have been, and I kept turning the speed up on the treadmill.

Seriously, I was practically running. It was at that moment I understood what an author could make a reader feel with tension. How Tolkien slowly pulled on that rope, tightening it with each page while at the same time giving the characters just enough hope to keep them going.

This month we’ll be sharing some of the ways to put tension into stories. From romantic to action. There will be something for everyone. Stick around, it’s going to be good.