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Old 06-04-2007, 10:32 AM   #1
slupo
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Default The Ticking Clock Plot Device

I've been intrigued by the "Ticking Clock" plot device lately. I'm not sure if that's what it's really called, but that's how I refer to it.

Anyway, I have a script where I'm trying to use an impending deadline that occurs at the end of Act 2 to keep pressure and excitement up.

I have a couple of questions. Do you think the ticking clock needs to be introduced in the beginning of Act 2 to carry the action all the way through? Or would it be ok to introduce it at the midpoint in Act 2?

Is the ticking clock as effective if the protagonist is unaware of it but the audience is?
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Old 06-04-2007, 10:41 AM   #2
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

I think the ticking clock device can come into play anywhere say for example at the start (Lose your virginity by prom American Pie) or at the end (Stop the bomb from exploding Pick any Movie that has a bomb at the end).

One thing that may help though is to not only give your protag a ticking clock but also your antag so that your protag is always trying to keep up with the antag as well. A person on this board utilised this very well in a recent update of a treatment of theirs.

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Is the ticking clock as effective if the protagonist is unaware of it but the audience is?
Personal choice really I think. Also depends on what genre you're writing.

For example in a romcom...we know that the love interest is getting on a plane but the protag doesn't until the very last second.

Action you may want the protag to know what's happening.

You might want to read about Hitchcock's Bomb Theory

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In dramatizing this fear, Hitchcock employs a technique he calls the "Bomb Theory." This scenario runs as follows: Two men are sitting at a table discussing baseball. They talk for about five minutes, when suddenly, there is a huge explosion, which gives the audience a terrible shock, which lasts for about about fifteen seconds. According to Hitchcock's Bomb Theory, when the scene opens, you show the audience that there is a bomb under the table, which is set to go off in five minutes. While the men are sitting casually discussing baseball, the audience is squirming in their seats, thinking Don't sit there talking about baseball... there's a bomb under the table! Get rid of it! The audience is overwhelmed with the sense to warn the characters of the danger which they perceive, and which the characters are not aware of. Hitchcock's method transfers the menace from the screen to the minds of the audience, until it becomes unbearable - at which point there is a climax. An important footnote to this theory: You must never let the bomb go off and kill anybody. Otherwise, the audience will be very mad at you.
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Old 06-04-2007, 11:26 AM   #3
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Default The Ticking Clock

Ticking bombs are much more exciting, (for example, the bus ride in Hitchcock's SABOTAGE was lots of fun).

I do plan to use a "ticking clock" in the beginning of Act 1 in my film project, (using, for dramatic music, Arthur Sullivan's overture to "Macbeth," from about 5:25 to 6:20 in this midi file), but it concludes promptly afterwards, with the rout of the Yankee invaders.
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Old 06-04-2007, 12:13 PM   #4
La Femme Joyeuse
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

Nice post, Oz! The ticking clock isn't a device as much as it is simply connected to the stakes. In order to maintain and build tension in the narrative, characters in a script are headed toward some kind of shift - be that an explosion, the ol' leaving-on-a-jet-plane scene, the Big Game, the prom - whatever. The size of the ticking clock depends on the genre and course the characters. If you're writing the Virgin Suicides, the ticking clock probably isn't a giant meteor streaking toward earth.

The question is why does this story start right when it does? What is going on in everybody's lives? Because movies are about wish fulfillment and life writ large, audiences love to see those key moments in life when everything changes - this way or that way. We know that in real life, days, weeks and even months can go by - and nothing much happens. But movies are life compressed for the most impact, resolution and entertainment value.

In my line of work the number one most annoying problem with a script is when - nothing - happens. The narrative is flat; no peaks and valleys. And we don't seem to be moving toward some Big Event. So the ticking clock is a way of articulating the deadline at the end of the script; what if they don't make it on time? What if they get caught? Will she make it to the altar - or whatever. The audience has to have something that they're rooting for or worried about - something is at stake.

I think of it as a way to keep behinds in seats. Why should the audience stick around? Well - because they've just got to know whether your character will make it on time, avoid the big bad consequence or get the big reward. If you don't have a ticking clock, what is to stop your viewer from switching theaters, feeding the meter or making out with their girlfriend? Keep behinds in seats. Keep attention rapt.
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Old 06-05-2007, 10:22 AM   #5
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

Nice post Oz. We actually had a discussion of this in class, the teacher stated that in, "American Beauty" the voice stated that he had a year to live - ticking bomb. This tick-tock creates tension. We know that there's a short amount of time for something to be done and we're rooting for our hero to make it in time. Without this tension, there might not be tension within the story.
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Old 06-05-2007, 11:22 AM   #6
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

Hitchcock goes into a lot of detail about the difference between suspense and terror in his book-length interview with Truffaut, still available in paperback, and well worth buying. I've read it many times over.
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Old 06-05-2007, 04:14 PM   #7
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

In my class I've used MAGNOLIA's ticking clock - Tom Cruise's estranged father is on his death bed... will Tom get over himself and visist his father before he dies?

Basically, all of this is about stakes and deadlines. I think those are two critical things in any story. Stakes are the consequences of failure, and deadlines force the protagonist to solve the problem.

You've gotten some one night stand knocked up - now you have until that baby is born to try and form a relationship with her (and she with you) or the kid is going to only have one parent.

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Old 06-05-2007, 08:42 PM   #8
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

The knowledge that something bad is going to happen soon if someone doesn't complete a specific task is a natural source of tension. It appears in many stories in many different forms (consider its effective use in tonal opposites BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).
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Old 06-05-2007, 08:44 PM   #9
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

Quote:
Originally Posted by Charli View Post
Nice post Oz. We actually had a discussion of this in class, the teacher stated that in, "American Beauty" the voice stated that he had a year to live - ticking bomb. This tick-tock creates tension. We know that there's a short amount of time for something to be done and we're rooting for our hero to make it in time. Without this tension, there might not be tension within the story.
American Beauty is somewhat more complicated than that. IMO, the main dramatic question isn't if he's going to die, but how. Ball plays around with this question by making some of the supporting characters suspects (the mom taking shooting lessons, the daughter telling her boyfriend she wants him to kill Spacey).

But you're right. The knowledge that he's going to die does help drive the action.
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Old 06-05-2007, 11:39 PM   #10
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Default Re: The Ticking Clock Plot Device

Try the mid point. It's a logical turning point in the story, and helps keep up the tension in the 2nd act which is where most specs tend to peter out.

Someone mentioned BACK TO THE FUTURE. That's a great example of a strong mid point that sets up a ticking clock. Right about midway through the 2nd act is when Marty and Doc formulate their plan to use the lightening tower to get the electricity they need, which sets up the ticking clock. The situation is almost simultaneously compounded by the subplot where Marty realizes he's upset the space time continuum and must also get his parents back together before going back to the future. So Marty is stuck in a tremendous predicament where he MUST get his parents back together for the Dance AND do it before the lightening strike occurs. There's no other way out for him.

It's a great turning point in that story and really thrust the story forward and helps keep up the tension of the 2nd act.
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