Friday, March 11, 2016

Creating Tension: Clock Starts Now!

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

My munchkins are obsessed with the Kid's Baking Championship. It is THE SHOW to watch if you're hoping to feel completely inadequate in the kitchen. It boggles my mind the things these kids do. Seriously. I spend half the show googling their food vocabulary.

But I digress.

The point: My children cannot watch this show without becoming fully invested. They cheer when their favorites excel and they argue with each other over the merits of each junior baker. If the kids they're rooting for don't win, life's a little rough on all of us. For an hour or two my house is filled with angry tears and droopy Eeyore moments.

Sure, my kids need to buck up a bit, but the truth is, they're responding just as the showrunners hope they'll respond. The creators of the series want my kids dashing back to the television after each commercial potty break and they want them talking about it with their friends at school and more than anything else, they want my kids to tune in for the next installment.

And HOW do they do that? By turning a game show into a story.

At the outset of the show, the stakes are clearly outlined, "Only one of you will be crowned the winner, and today, someone's going home." Dun, dun, duuuuuunnn!

But knowing what the contestants are playing for is just the start. It's a necessary, fantastic place to start, but it's not enough to get an audience full of twitchy couch-sitters to watch kids cook for an hour.

This story must be filled with tension.

Over the next few Fridays, I thought we'd discuss some killer ways to up the tension in your story. That sound good? I hope so, cause I've got a good one for you. And it's a tool I used when I wrote Broken Wings


I knew I wanted to start Broken Wings in the depths of hell and I knew that I wanted the Prince of Darkness to set the stakes, but after reading the initial draft, the whole thing was missing urgency. It was sort of like, "Okay, all these things are going to happen, obstacles, problems, feelings, blah, blah, blah, and it'll just end when it ends?"

And then I realized what I needed to do--or rather, what the Prince needed to do. After a rewrite, the Prince demanded that a main character be captured and delivered to him within two weeks time. The fiery pit awaited if the antagonist failed.

By putting my bad guy on the clock, I put my good guys on the clock as well. I put the entire plot of the story into a state of "hurry up!" with the intention of dragging my readers, breathless, through to the conclusion.

Now, back to the Kid's Baking Championship. Once the kids are reminded of the stakes, the host yells something like, "And the clock starts . . . NOW!"

Off the kids scamper, running into one another in their efforts, sliding into counters and doing everything they can to finish on time. Inevitably things go wrong. The blender doesn't work. The blond kid stole all the apples. The teeny tiny baker sliced her finger with a knife bigger than her arm.

All of these obstacles are exacerbated by that ticking clock. My kids are bouncing in their seats screaming, "YOU DON'T HAVE TIME! Just duct tape your thumb!"

We call that tension.

Some of your favorite stories employ this strategy:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling: The second task in the TriWizard tournament requires the Champions to find what's been stolen from them in one hour.

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski: When Kestrel comes of age, she must choose: marry or join her father's war-mongering army.

Wither by Lauren DeStefano: Because of a botched genetic experiment, Rhine is living in a world where the females only live until they reach 20 years of age. She has four years left.

These were just the first three novels to flit across my mind, but all kinds of storytelling employs this strategy. Any story where a bomb must be deactivated before it explodes or a character dies if they don't get medication on time, any story that involves characters being rescued from a rapidly filling pool of water. Or toxic fumes. Or sand. Any story with a limited number of oxygen tanks.

Think of Star Wars: A New Hope. Han and Leia and Luke and Chewbacca are all trapped in the trash compactor and it's getting smaller and smaller and smaller! I remember the anxiety in my little heart the first time I saw it. Hurry up! Do something or you'll be squashed!

That's what you want from a reader. Investment. Regardless of the genre, you must build tension into your story. And a ticking time bomb just might help.

Can you think of a story with time acting as a motivator?
And tell me, how would your story change if YOUR characters were on the clock?


  1. This is such a timely post because I was just thinking about adding some sort of Ticking Clock to my story--something my characters would have to race against, try to beat in order to succeed. You've given me some good thoughts! Thanks for the post, Mrs. Dittemore.

  2. I love the subtle ticking clock in LOTR: at first, Frodo has time to reach Mount Doom, but as the story progresses and Sauron starts to send the Ringwraiths after him, and Gandalf "dies", they slowly start feeling a sense of urgency all the way till the Fellowship breaks. I love how this is contrasted with the elves' infinite patience.

    My story needs some more tension, so this was a perfect post for me! Thanks a lot.

  3. I'm actually on the climax of my story now, thanks for this! Though I predict major editing sessions in my future... They have one clock in the beginning of the book, but now they need one for the climax. I'm assuming that my characters would be on the verge of killing each other if I added more tension.

    1. Character on the verge of killing one another = not a bad thing!

  4. My story actually DOES have a ticking clock!! Flint has an estimated one week to live under the curse and Kaia must find the flower and bring it back before he diiiiiiiiieees.

  5. In Prince of Thorns there is a election for emperor in eight years and the main character needs to win the favor of the majority of the kingdoms to become emperor. While eight years seems like a long time the main character spends the whole first book acquiring one kingdom and the second one holding it. And then the third book is mostly the election.

    And the ticking clock in my book is: Avartes has two weeks to find the Kings gem, until the accusations on him are declared true and the entire kingdom comes down on him. But another dark force approaches, and no one knows how to stop it. Avartes has to find the Kings gem and figure out how to escape this dark fate before it consumes them all.

  6. The first story that comes to mind is Nadine Brandes' A Time to Die. Literal clocks play a huge role in that story. :)

    I love this tension device! I should make use of it more often. :)

    1. Would you believe I have yet to read a Nadine Brandes story? I need to get on that.

  7. The first story that came to mind for me was Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban :).
    Ooo, I should totally put my characters on a clock! I'm editing a story that I once entered in a contest, and you gave me the best idea for what I can add :D. Thanks, Shannon!

  8. The best example of a ticking clock in a book that I've read is the literal clock in Story Thieves: The Stolen Chapters. The main characters only have 2 hours to find their friend before she "vanishes" forever.

    My own book has a subtle ticking clock, as it is a Lord of the Rings-ish story. The characters only have so much time to complete their Quest before the dark lord conquers all the free lands. It becomes more apparent, I think, when the dark lord actually starts achieving that goal.

  9. This sounds like a great series! I can't wait to see the next editions :)

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  10. Shutter by Courtney Alameda has a great ticking clock. Micheline and her friends are infected with a ghostly sickness/curse that's going to kill them in seven days.
    My fairytale retelling story also has a ticking clock. When Rosamond was born, a fairy laid a curse on her that will kill her on her seventeenth birthday. Rose is sixteen when the book starts and her birthday is in two months. That was the least amount of time I can do because of all the stuff that happens between the beginning and her birthday.