Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #108: Give Each Scene Its Own Ticking Clock

This should be obvious, but I’ve just figured it out. We all know that the overall plot needs a ticking time clock to ramp up motivation, but you can also add a time limit countdown to almost every scene. Now that I’ve started doing it, I find that it’s surprisingly easy-- At the beginning of every scene, toss in a line like one of these:
  • “I have to go, so I can only talk for a second.”
  • “Let me ask you something before he comes back in the room.”
  • “We have to do this quick before anybody notices we’re gone.”
If one spouse wants to discuss something in the kitchen in the morning, the other spouse should be running late. If they’re in bed at night, one of them should have taken a sleeping pill. The one with the problem now has a limited time to get the answer they need.

This has additional benefits: Writers always try to build events towards a climax, but that’s not how life naturally works. In real life, when people kiss, or say I love you for the first time, or get in a fight, they tend to talk about it afterwards, which is inherently anticlimactic. If you have a pre-established excuse to cut the scene short, you can go out on a bang by yanking one character away.
This way, the characters don’t get to resolve all of their issues too early in your script. If someone says “I love you” right before someone shows up to arrest their love interest (or freeze him in carbonite), the writer is allowed to let it dangle for a while. Also, this is a good way to get non-emotional characters to say emotional things. When the pressure’s on, our defenses get dropped.

This can also take the heat off your villain. The more you allow minor, incidental pressures to provide the conflict, the less you have to write overheated rhetoric about good vs. evil. Instead of forcing the characters to endlessly fret about one big conflict, remember that the pressure they’re under can complicate their life in a dozen smaller ways, keeping them on edge even when they’re not under attack.
The best way to keep a reader reading is if they’re anticipating that something is about to happen, in the story as a whole and within each scene. Tomorrow we’ll look at some subtler ways to do that...


Ruth said...

Microtension! Great advice, as usual.

Sandra de Helen said...

Exactly the advice I needed today. Thank you!