Monday, April 30, 2012

How to Add Tension to Your Plot

by Stephanie Morrill


 
When I first heard the concept of the ticking clock, I thought it was just a cool technique for suspense authors to use. Like, "The ransom is due at midnight, and little Joey will die, but we've been trapped in this room by crazy Earl and can't get out!"

But the ticking clock, I've come to realize, can be used in all genres. Like in really well done regency romances:


In Julie Klassen's latest, Margaret is a young society lady in London, but unlike her peers has had no real interest in marrying - unless for love - because on her 21st birthday she will inherit a tremendous sum of money from her great aunt.

But while she's 20, her mother remarries. Her stepfather has somehow learned about her inheritance, and is forcing his charming but slimy nephew to court her. Margaret overhears a conversation between the two men, in which it's made clear that they intend to persuade her to marry the nephew by ... ahem ... ruining her reputation as a virtuous woman.

With 3 months until her birthday, Margaret flees from the dangerous situation with what teeny amount of pocket money she has and goes undercover as a maid. Only she gets hired by two former suitors of hers, who might see through her disguise if they look closely.

Did you catch the ticking clock element? Margaret has three months until she inherits the money - can she stay hidden and safe until then?


Even if you're not writing something in the suspense vein, a "ticking clock" element can really tighten up your plot.

The one I described above is a big ticking clock, something tied to the main character's big goal (avoiding marriage to anyone who wants her just for her fortune) but also, look for ways to add smaller ticking clocks. 


The show 24 was excellent at this. Not only did you have the big plot underfoot (terrorists who were trying to blow up Los Angeles) but there were also little ticking clocks along the way. The team is en route and we need that code broken now.

Are there ticking clocks in your manuscript? Or can your character take the scenic way to achieving their goals?



25 comments:

  1. I really need something like this for my WIP, thanks Stephanie!

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  2. I love this concept! Some great books have it. I really need to read that Julie book, I love her books!

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    1. Her books are fantastic. Such beautiful writing.

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  3. This is a great post. I've been vaguely aware of the idea (as evidenced by its presence in my book), but never heard it put into words. Thank you.

    I have several small ticking clocks, one being that they have to escape from a castle by sunset. Perhaps I need to add a more definite general clock, though...

    :D

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    1. The great this is this is something that can be strengthened or added during the editing process if it got left out in the first draft. Glad you liked it, Allison!

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  4. Woohoo for 24. Ahem.

    Now that I think on it, a whole lot of books have the ticking clock.

    Should we avoid that? And try to create something more unique? Or are tick downs fine?

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    1. I think there it's a piece of good story structure rather than a cliche plot element, Ashley. I think the clock is something readers don't even recognize when they see it, they just know the character needs to get a move on :)

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  5. I had never really thought about o before either. It is a good concept though. Thank you for bringing it to our attention!!

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    1. It's something I'm still working on adding to my own novels, so it was a good reminder for me!

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  6. Hmm, interesting. I think I can use that in my next WIP, "Forced." :) Thanks, Stephanie! ^_^

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    1. :) Thanks. It's actually a working title, about a girl who marries a prince, unwillingly, because he wants someone to run the country while he has fun. :D It's actually based on a dream I had once.

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    2. Ooh, your WIPs have titles! I just refer to mine by the name of the main character...
      Your story sounds cool; a different take on fairy-tale sort of story. I hope you get it published some day, I'd like to read it.

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  7. I know this is a really lame example, but this concept struck me when I saw "Over the Hedge" a long time ago. I remember seeing the previews and thinking it was a fair idea, but when I actually got around to seeing the film, the fact that they added the concept of RJ only having, what, a day or two to get the impossible job done made it so much more exciting.
    It's a really awesome idea! Thanks for the post!

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  8. Ow, that´s really inspirating and helpful. I mean, now I have to think, how to implement such a clock to my "book" to make it more... how to say it... dramatic and so. :D
    Thank you, so much, Stephanie

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  9. This was fantastic! My current WIP is being written with a partner and we've gotten a lot of compliments on it. What was bothering me was that there didn't seem to really be a drive for them to really do anything. Adding the ticking clock has helped SOOO MUCH. I think there ends up being at least 3 big one's in the whole story. This was great and very helpful. Thanks so much ^_^

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  10. Great post! In a book I just started, the MC and her friend have thirteen months to travel across another entire world before they can escape. If it takes longer than thirteen months, they are locked in the world forever. So yes, I use the ticking clock :)

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  11. Thanks for this post! The ticking clock really adds suspense to stories and keeps the reader's interest. I'm trying to think how I can add the ticking clock to my WIP, a historical taking place during the Great Depression Era :)

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  12. I am definitely using a ticking clock method in my story, "Anomaly." My characters have to repair a supernatural (for lack of a better word) boat to return to their own reality before an alternate reality collapses.

    And it's good that I saw this post, too, because i was starting to wonder is the whole "time is running out" thing was too overdone. Apparently it's something perfectly acceptable (and useful) to be used time and time again! :D

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  13. This is great! In my first novel, the ticking clock counted down to my heroine's nineteenth birthday...In my second, I suppose it was a little less obvious but there was a certain invasion that is revealed through the villain's POV chapters...In my third, my heroine knows that the clock is ticking though she doesn't know when a secret from her past will show up at the castle gate.

    That was fun to recount all the clocks I've used--and think about the element in regards to my WIP! Thanks, Stephanie!

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  14. Cool! There's lots of ticking clocks in my first story. The one I'm working on now doesn't have one yet, but I'm deffinately gonna find one.

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  15. So, do you have to have a main ticking clock, something that is there throughout the whole story (like alot of people are saying birthdays) or is it okay to have just several little ticking clocks throughout?

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    1. MaddieJ, I think several little ticking clocks can work just fine. There are lots of successful books (and movies and TV shows) that don't have ticking clocks in them at all or that only have little ones.

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  16. There is a plague in the several places in my world, so someone needs to find a cure before everybody dies.
    Is that a ticking clock?

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