Podcast

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?

We all know that the overall plot needs a ticking clock to ramp up motivation, but you can also add time limit countdowns 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 she comes back in the room.” 
  • “Let’s do this quick before anybody notices we’re gone.” 
If one spouse wants to discuss something at the breakfast table, the other spouse should be running late for work. If they’re in bed at night, one of them should have taken a sleeping pill that’s about to kick in. The one with the problem now has a limited time to get an answer.

This technique has additional benefits: Writers should always try to build events toward a climax, even though 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 afterward, right? But that’s a problem for stories, because talking about it afterward is inherently anticlimactic. To make your story more dramatic than real life, you need to create a way to cut off that scene before they have a chance to talk about it. If you have a pre-established excuse to cut the scene short, you can go out with a bang by yanking one character away right after the big breakthrough.

If your scenes keep getting cut short by outside events, then your characters won’t get to resolve their issues too early. If a character says, “I love you” right before someone shows up to arrest her love interest (or freeze him in carbonite, in the case of The Empire Strikes Back), that creates a natural cliff-hanger, and you can let that emotional dilemma dangle for a while.

This is also a good way to get unemotional characters to say emotional things. When the pressure’s on, our defenses drop. (Although, in that case, Han Solo managed to hang onto his sang froid and not reply with his own “I love you,” even though his sang was about to be literally froided.)

One advantage of mini-ticking clocks is that you don’t need to focus as much on the major ticking clock, and this can also take the heat off your villain. The more you allow minor, incidental pressures to provide the conflict, the less you need to write overheated rhetoric about the major conflict. Instead of forcing the characters to endlessly fret about one big conflict, remember that the pressure they’re under can complicate their lives in a dozen smaller ways, keeping them on edge even when they’re not under attack from the main bad guy. The best way to keep your readers reading is to make sure they’re always anticipating something that’s about to happen, both in the story as a whole and within each scene.

Michael Powell’s creepy horror masterpiece Peeping Tom has the ultimate example of the ticking clock for a scene. Our “hero” is a troubled young man who invites actresses to his apartment for screen tests, then kills them with a blade attached to one leg of his tripod, filming their hideous expressions as they die. But a compassionate young woman in his building, unaware of his madness, has started reaching out to him. In one scene, while he’s in the middle of developing the film of his last victim’s death, the young woman stops by. The conversation makes him happy, but if he talks to her for too long, the developer fluid will ruin the film of his previous kill. Powell literally intercuts the ticking timer in the darkroom with their flirtatious conversation until our hero is ultimately forced to decide between the two.

But not all ticking clocks are so literal. Sometimes it can be something minor that only has a subconscious effect on the reader or viewer. If you don’t have an excuse to yank one character away at the end, there are all sorts of subtle ways to create a minor climax within a scene:
  • Begin a kitchen scene with the toaster lever being forced down. The audience will subconsciously sense the scene will end with the toast popping up. 
  • In a comedic scene, have a character unable to think of a word at the beginning, which is driving her crazy. Just when the audience has forgotten about that, the scene ends with her exclamation of the word. 
  • If two characters are loudly arguing, add a meek person who keeps trying to get the attention of one of the two arguers, then comes up with a clever solution to get what he needs. 
  • Add a dog that’s trying to get one of the characters to feed him for the length of the entire scene and then have him come up with a clever solution to get the food at the end. Good examples would be Asta in the Thin Man movies or Momo on Avatar: The Last Airbender. 
  • Have a character hastily cover up the evidence of some mistake she’s made at the beginning of the scene. Then have it pop up again and get revealed at the end of the scene, causing much embarrassment. 
There’s no better example of this than the Nazi monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who ultimately dies from eating his own poisoned dates. What could have been a dull exposition scene comes to life, only to end tragically for one poor monkey. Who is a Nazi.

Rulebook Casefile: A Subconscious Ticking Clock in The Fighter
 
The Ultimate Checklist for The Fighter examines the wonderful scene in which Charlene forces Micky to confront his mother and brother about their mismanagement of his career. Let’s look at how the scene subconsciously creates suspense.

Scenes always benefit from a “ticking clock”. The simplest form of this is a scene in which one side was ambushed and tries to get away from the conversation the whole time. But in the scene we looked at, the meeting was planned in advance and both sides seem to be willing to discuss this for as long as it takes (even though nobody wants to be there). So how do you add suspense?

The answer has to do with another post: have a non-story element in each scene. In this case, we begin as Micky and Charlene wait uncomfortably for Alice and Dicky to arrive while Micky’s seven sisters glare at them. Charlene glares right back, then aggressively engages them in conversation, attempting to determine which sister goes with which nickname (“You’re Beaver? And you’re Red Bear? Red Beard?”). The girls sneer that those nicknames are only for family. Micky snaps at them “Be nice!” But then, a beat later, even though the sisters haven’t said anything else, he wilts and says quietly to Charlene, “Don’t use the nicknames.”

So now we’ve established the problem: Micky will only stick by Charlene so long until he caves to family pressure and his own conflict-averse nature. Just then, Alice and Dicky arrive, and we have the subconscious sense that Charlene is going to have to fight against the clock to get keep Micky on the offensive before he instinctively “goes back to his corner.” She’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there…and as Burt Reynolds can tell you, that’s the heart of good drama.

Straying from the Party Line: Overdoing the Ticking Clock in the “Scandal” Pilot
 
Ticking clocks are great. They escalate tension and stakes. They create a sense of urgency. They pre-establish the ultimate goal and clarify the main dramatic question. But they must seem natural. If they go too far, and violate our sense of how the world works, all that good will suddenly be reversed.

“Scandal” is a show with built-in weekly ticking clock: They’re trying to get out in front of scandals before they become known to the public, and that impending danger is always nipping at their heels.

The pilot does a nice job of making the clock more explicit: After the blood-covered war hero stumbles into Olivia’s headquarters after midnight, she heads over to the D.C. district attorney, wakes him up, and tells him that she doesn’t intend to hand over her client for another 24 hours, and she’ll politicize it in the press if he shows up before then. This is a stretch, but it’s believable enough for TV. This is a huge high-profile arrest, and a political football, and the D.A. might give some leeway to a well-connected bulldog defense lawyer.

But then things get needlessly silly. Just when the case is faltering, the D.A. and the police shows up at Olivia’s door with a warrant, but she brashly tells them that she still has 40 minutes on their agreement and so they reluctantly agree to stand outside in the hallway for that time while Olivia’s team tries one last hail-mary to find the alibi.

Nope.

Audiences have a sense of how the world works, and they generously allow a certain amount of wiggle room beyond that. Most stories, after all, are about extraordinary crisis situations, and in that high-stakes world the rules for what would usually happen are allowed to stretch a bit. But come on, people. Don’t violate our good will. 

Why do this? Why not just have Olivia say, “The D.A. might be here in less than an hour! Get me something!” Because TV networks love visual ticking clocks, and pilots especially often have such ludicrously exaggerated scenes. Does this mean that spec pilot writers should include such scenes? Probably not. Don’t voluntarily sacrifice plot logic before they get a chance to take it from you.

For this Scenework series, we’re examining these scenes: So how do those scenes do answer this question?

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.

Alien

After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.

An Education

Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.

The Babadook

Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.

Blazing Saddles

Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople

Blue Velvet

Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.

The Bourne Identity

Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.

Bridesmaids

Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.

Casablanca

Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.

Chinatown

Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses

Donnie Brasco

Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party.  Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him.  Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.

Do the Right Thing

Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.

The Farewell

Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.

The Fighter

Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.

Frozen

Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace

The Fugitive

Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.

Get Out

Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea.  She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup.  She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.

Groundhog Day

Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.

How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.

In a Lonely Place

Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.

Iron Man

Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.

Raising Arizona

During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.

Rushmore

Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.

Selma

King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act

The Shining

Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off.  While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family.  Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.

Sideways

Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancĂ©, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.

The Silence of the Lambs

Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.

Star Wars

The gang takes over the Death Star command office.

Sunset Boulevard

Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.

So how do those scenes do answer this question?

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Surely she’s going to hit someone eventually.  Also she keeps almost throwing up.

Alien

YES. Only in that we know the alien is hunting them.

An Education

NO. they have all night to convince the dad.

The Babadook

YES. Will he talk her out of killing him before she can break the ropes?

Blazing Saddles

YES. Well, it’s just a matter of time before all those guns go off.

Blue Velvet

YES. we know that she’s coming home, then we know that she’ll eventually use the closet, then we suspect that Frank could come by, then we wonder how much Jeffrey can take until he interferes, then we wonder if he can get out before he gets knifed.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Jason has to get to him before the smoke clears (and get back before Marie and the relatives flee)

Bridesmaids

YES. Can she talk him out of it before he puts the ticket in the system?

Casablanca

Somewhat, we know the Germans are searching for the letters of transit.

Chinatown

YES. We know that Jake has to get across town soon to meet Curly.

Donnie Brasco

Sort of: it’s a borrowed boat, and they only have a limited amount of time with Sonny.

Do the Right Thing

YES. How much trouble will Buggin’ Out cause in the time it takes him to eat his slice?  Once Sal comes out with the bat, it’s clear that Mookie and Vito and Pino have to get Buggin out of there before violence breaks out. 

The Farewell

NO.

The Fighter

YES. They’re all committed to staying until they reach a deal, but the subconscious ticking clock that they’re all aware of is Mickey’s ever-faltering resolve, which will collapse if they can wear him out long enough. 

Frozen

YES. Elsa’s curse is getting worse. 

The Fugitive

YES. Very subtly, the sound of the dam increases through the chase, so we sense that something large is looming to stop the chase.

Get Out

YES. Sort of, once we realized what she’s doing with the teacup, and he’s got to get out of there before it gets him. 

Groundhog Day

YES. He counts down to plates dropping, knows that he has to convince her before Larry comes in and takes her away.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Hiccup must get answers before this dragon can kill him.

In a Lonely Place

YES. we know that there’s a danger that various people might call. We know that Laurel has tickets out of town.

Iron Man

YES. She pulls out the magnet and he starts to go into cardiac arrest.

Lady Bird

Not really. 

Raising Arizona

YES. They want to get the kids down 

Rushmore

YES. When will he finally sit next to her? 

Selma

NO. Not really, other than the fact that any president is going to be sparing with his time. 

The Shining

YES. Slightly: they’re trying to get the stain out before it sets. Yes, he knows his wife may be searching for him.

Sideways

YES. Stephanie is outside and we hear her motorcycle running the whole time.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. She’s been warned that he bores quickly, and that she should get out as soon as possible.

Star Wars

YES. We know that Darth Vader can sense Obi-Wan, and that Leia’s death order has been given. 

Sunset Boulevard

Somewhat, When will the scary butler do to him?  When will the real monkey undertaker arrive?

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