In expert hands, the device of a ticking clock can add urgency and keep readers turning pages. A personal favorite – will Harry Potter destroy all of the horcruxes before Voldemort attacks Hogwarts? On the other hand, in the wrong hands the ticking clock can feel forced. Every author wants to make their readers feel something when they read their work, but we’d rather it not be annoyance. At least, not annoyance at the writer.
I recently encountered an example of the ticking clock that I found original in the young adult sci-fi novel Unwind by Neal Shusterman. The premise is that parents have the option of having their children “unmade” part by part between the ages of 13 and 18. The first book in the series centers around three kids slated to be unwound, who all escape before the procedure can be performed on them. The very effective ticking clock that runs through the entire series is that if they can survive until they turn 18, then they’re safe. One thing I loved was that the ticking clock keeps ticking, even at the end of the story. It made me instantly download the next book in the series. I was invested, and had to know that the characters I’d come to care for would survive to adulthood.
I’m currently writing the first draft of the third book of The Conjurors Series and decided to add a ticking clock. As the book draws to a close, I find myself uncertain as to whether it’s functioning the way I want it to. It’s possible to start the ticking clock too early, and it adds pressure to every scene. It feels like my protagonist can’t take moments to relax when she knows something big is about to happen.
And readers need those breaks from the action as much as protagonists do. I relish the pauses in my favorite novels, where characters have a chance to feel and aren’t running to the next action scene. Imagine if Edward and Bella never had their moment in the clearing in the woods where they finally admit how they feel? I think Twilight is a great example of a ticking clock gone wrong. The moment that the book becomes a race to save Bella’s life, it loses the heart-rending romance that makes the series compelling.
What books do you think do the best (or worst) job of employing a ticking clock?