by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Conflict is a necessity in good storytelling. One of the strongest ways you can increase the conflict in your story is to compress time. There’s perhaps no greater thrill for an audience than watching a character race against a merciless clock. Here are nine clocks to challenge your hero with.
1. THE BLIND CLOCK
You know it’s coming but can’t see WHEN it’s coming. Many powerful stories have been structured around impending doom – a natural disaster, a historical event, a mysterious attacker, and the list goes on. We know when the clock strikes the appointed time, the rug will be pulled from underneath our hero. We just can’t SEE the clock. We don’t know how close that appointed time is. San Andreas, Twister, and Titanic all center around blind clocks.
2. THE SEASONAL CLOCK
A seasonal clock ticks down to the end of a season or era. In these stories, our protagonist must accomplish their goal before winter hits or perhaps before summer arrives and the school year is over. These devices are often used in stories that take place in schools or the lives of teenagers. Whether it’s finding a date before prom or asking a boy out before school is dismissed for the summer, the stakes always seem high when every day moves our character one step closer to their last chance. A number of John Hughes movies are structured around seasonal clocks.
American Pie is another example — where a group of boys make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night.
3. THE REVELATION CLOCK
Sometimes, our character is hiding a secret and their story is structured around the difficulty they are having in keeping that secret. They often have a goal they must accomplish before they are found out. The revelation clock transcends all genres and is one of the most used, albeit effective, devices in storytelling. The protagonists in Never Been Kissed, Mrs. Doubtfire, She’s The Man, and Tootsie all try to accomplish their goals before their true identity is revealed. In films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Blow, the protagonists are attempting to complete goals before their crimes come to light.
4. THE EVENT CLOCK
The event clock is winding down to the third act in the story when the big game/fight/contest or similar event will occur. Our hero has often spent the entire second act training and overcoming obstacles to get here, and now it’s time to see if all they’ve endured was worth it. Event clocks are common in films that revolve around athletes or sports teams as in The Karate Kid or Friday Night Lights. They are also seen in comedies such as Pitch Perfect, Birdman, and School of Rock. One of the most popular event clocks remains the wedding clock. We see this used in Bridesmaids, My Best Friend’s Wedding, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Wedding Singer, Coming to America, and even The Hangover.
5. THE TREASURE CLOCK
Our protagonist has a very clear goal – to get the treasure. But their enemy is also after the same treasure. The treasure clock ticks in the race to get there before the enemy does. While mainly a staple of action/adventure films like the Indiana Jones movies, The Goonies, and National Treasure, we also see this clock in stories like O Brother Where Art Thou?
6. THE ENEMY’S CLOCK
Many heroes are saviors racing against the clock before their enemy has an opportunity to enact their plan. We’ve seen Clarice Starling desperately trying to catch Buffalo Bill before he can kill his next victim in Silence of the Lambs. We’ve seen Tony Stark and his Avengers try to stop Loki/Ultron from realizing his plan. We’ve even seen a construction worker trying to stop an evil tyrant from gluing the Lego universe together permanently in The Lego Movie. All are heroes fighting against the moment when their antagonist will accomplish his or her goal.
7. THE MONSTER CLOCK
The goal of the hero in a story with a monster clock is usually just to escape. These films leave audiences biting their nails and plotting escape plans for the character they’re watching on screen. We just want to see them get away before the monster gets them. While these clocks are most often found in horror films, Jurassic Park and Jurassic World take great advantage of this device. Chase movies, like Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming Pixels, rely on the same sort of clock.
8. THE DEADLINE CLOCK
Sometimes, our hero faces an immovable deadline. There is nothing they can do to change it. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly must unite his parents before lightning strikes the clock tower, which is his only shot at returning home to the life he knows. The climax of the film features a literal ticking clock. Will Ferrell’s character must Get Hard before his upcoming prison sentence. In Brewster’s Millions, Monty Brewster must spend $30 million in 30 days without acquiring any assets or giving the money away in order to collect his full inheritance.
9. THE SANITY CLOCK
Stories that use the sanity clock challenge our protagonist to simply survive before losing their wits. These stories are often about humanity’s battle against institutions. The Shawshank Redemption, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, American Beauty, and Neighbors all have heroes (of sorts) battling against sand in an hourglass of sanity. When the sand runs out – which will always happen in these stories — drastic measures will be taken by or against the protagonist. In other words, this is when the fun starts (or ends).
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.