Janet here. Stories often have deadlines, a ticking clock that pushes characters to pursue their goals with a sense of urgency. In a suspense novel, the hero might be racing against the clock to find his sister before she dies at her kidnapper’s hand. Of course not all ticking clocks have life and death stakes. But if that ticking clock is connected to your characters’ goals—what they want and pursue throughout the novel—then that deadline is vital to the characters and the readers.
In my historical novel The Bride Wore Spurs, heroine Hannah’s goal is to run the family ranch. When events make it abundantly clear that the ranch hands won’t listen to her, she is forced into a marriage of convenience with neighboring rancher Matt. The wedding will take place in three days. That short time frame ups the tension. Hannah must get her mother’s wedding dress altered and endure the startled reaction of others, all the while grieving her father’s failing health and the lack of love between her and Matt. With this short time period till the wedding, the heroine and I had no problem keeping track of the days.
But I did lose track once.
In my novella, “The Last Minute Bride,” Brides of the West, Elise and David are estranged but must join forces to provide a lovely reception for their best friends’ wedding in two weeks. All the while Elise is hurting by what she believes is David’s betrayal. As I wrote the novella, I had no problem keeping track of the days, but during revisions, I reordered some scenes, easy to do with cut and paste. The problem—I somehow missed that in the new version of the story I’d messed up the passage of days. I was able to fix the discrepancies during editorial revisions. Still, that blunder unnerved me.
Since that experience, when writing a story with a specific deadline, I’m very aware of the importance of keeping track of the passage of time. So how do I make sure I get it right? And don't have the crazy urge to rid the story of that ticking clock?
Eliminate Ticking Clock Hazards with a story outline
As I write, I like to outline my story, giving the briefest mention of what happens in each scene of each chapter. The outline is invaluable when my story has a ticking clock. I not only list the scenes in each of the chapters and the briefest mention of events, but I also add in large bold font the date and day the scenes take place. I may have more than one scene or even more than one chapter under that date. If a scene doesn't take place for a day or more, then I must be careful to include them in the passage of time. At the end of writing the draft—or my version of a draft, which is never rough or fast—I’ll have a complete outline of the book.
This outline is a great resource for me. As I write, the outline allows me to check facts like a minor character’s description or the name of the hero’s dog without having to scroll through the manuscript. I find this handier than the Find feature in Word.
Some may find the idea of dividing your story into chapters as you write bazaar, especially if you don’t write linearly. Still, you do create scenes and if your story has a ticking clock, you can decide what date those scenes should fall under. If you like to skip around writing scenes, beware that writing out of sequence is another potential hazard of the ticking clock.
In my current manuscript heroine Carly must have a bridal gown and trousseau made in three weeks, the date of her customer’s wedding. If the deadline is vague, then keeping track of the days and weeks might not matter, but in this case, the deadline is specific and reputation of her business is at stake. Try not to create a deadline merely to add pressure to the characters and up the emotion. Deadlines should force characters to take actions that forward the plot. Everything that happens in your story should forward the plot.
Here’s a peek at the opening of my story’s outline. Notice I give only enough details to trigger the scene in my mind. I don't list every event. For example before Carly looks for the deed in Chapter Three, she puts her son to bed. No need to remind myself of that little detail. Scenes may be in the same chapter but take place on different days. I add any information to the outline that I might want to check like minor character or store names.
Tuesday, March 1, 1898
Chapter 1: Carly buries Max.
Friday, April 1, 1898
Nate visits Carly’s shop. Sister Anna has deed won in a poker game by Anna’s dead husband Walt. Carly faints. Nate promises 6-year-old Henry he’ll help his mother.
Chapter 2: Carly won’t give up shop without a fight. Nate agrees to make livery repairs in exchange for Morris Mood’s empty house out back. Stray mutt.
Chapter 3: Carly questions Sheriff Truitt about legalities of shop ownership. Is told the Circuit Judge must rule. Lester and Lloyd Harders in jail. Carly searches house for deed and fails.
Saturday, April 2, 1898
Nate moves Anna. Visit cemetery on way.
Chapter 4: Carly gets Vivian Schwartz’s big bridal order for April 22 wedding in 20 days. Nate returns with Anna. Carly hires Anna.
Chapter 5: Nate moves Anna and stray dog she names Maizie into house. Carly and Henry bring food. At Stuffle Emporium Nate asks about outlaw Shifty Stogsdill.
Monday, April 4, 1898
You get the idea. I keep the outline open as I write and add to it as I go or soon afterward while events are fresh in my mind. Note that I had no Sunday scene, but the dated outline ensures I won’t lose track of the ticking clock, even when I skip days.
When I first used this outline technique, I added page numbers of the chapters but then was always changing them. I don’t need page numbers to find what I need when I use the Bookmark and Find features on Word.
Eliminate Ticking Clock Hazards with Scene Headers.
If the idea of an outline still makes you nauseous, but you have a ticking clock in your story, you might want to consider adding the date at the top of the page before you write a scene. If you add the point of view character’s goal, you've given yourself a nifty guide for writing the scene. For example, Monday, April 12, ten days till the wedding, Carly hopes for no interruption so she can… That helps me stay on track with the scene's goal and time frame.
To learn more about the importance of scene goals for your characters, click my post here.
Not that we want to show that ticking clock by starting scenes with the day of the week as if writing in a journal.To make a ticking clock an effective tool, writers should show characters scrambling to meet that deadline in the story itself. Make readers worry by planting roadblocks that stymie progress and raise the stakes. Start scenes with a hook and bring that information in during the action.
Eliminate Ticking Clock hazards with a Historical Calendar
Historical writers must make sure the days of the week jive with the year of their story. If the aforementioned wedding takes place on April 22, 1898, then I’d better know what day that falls on. It’s super easy to check the old calendar online. These calendars show what day holidays fall on and even identify the phase of the moon. If you want a romantic full moon in your historical, you can make sure that’s feasible.
For breakfast I brought yummy store-bought goodies. None of the “Use by” dates has expired so the donuts, muffins and pastries meet my freshness ticking clock. My goal. LOL
Have you written a story with a ticking clock? If so, please share how you keep track of the passing of time.
As a reader do you enjoy stories with ticking clocks?
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