Friday, November 6, 2009

Ticking Clocks

(Very minor spoilers: Alien, Aliens, High Noon, Almost Famous, Notorious, Little Miss Sunshine, Silence of the Lambs.)

“Ticking Clock” is a screenwriting term that refers to some kind of time limit on a story arc. It can be used for a scene, a sequence or the whole movie. The most obvious (and fairly cliché) example is a bomb with a countdown timer on it. The hero has to defuse the bomb before that timer gets to zero!

We can see plenty of similar examples in a wide variety of movies:

In High Noon (screenplay by Carl Foreman) the ticking clock is in the title. The bad guys are coming to town at noon. As the sheriff tries to gather allies to help him face down the villains, we constantly cut to shots of the clock getting closer and closer to noon.

Throughout the third act in both Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) and Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) we hear a computerized voice reading a countdown to imminent destruction – in the first movie the self-destruct sequence of the ship, and in the second movie that nuclear detonation of the facility’s failing power plant.

In The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) we know that the serial killer keeps his victims alive for several days – thus when a new victim is kidnapped, Clarice suddenly has a time limit to solve the case.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family must get Olive to the beauty pageant before registration closes. As they get closer to that deadline, they get more and more desperate.

And that is the purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene. The ticking clock is related to the stakes. We know something good will happen if the character succeeds and something bad will happen if the character fails. A ticking clock gives the character a deadline to achieve success or failure.

Consider Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). It is a coming of age story about young William going on tour with a rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone. Like many road movies it’s a bit episodic. But as the deadline for delivering the article approaches and William repeatedly fails to convince the lead guitarist to give him a crucial interview, the tension ratchets up. William can’t just go along enjoying the adventure – he has to get his article done!

A ticking clock needn’t be a literal clock, of course. The deadline doesn’t even have to be at a specific time. We just need to know that at some point the opportunity for the hero to succeed will come to an end, and we need some way to measure how close we are to that point. For example in Speed (written by Graham Yost) the ticking clock is the gas gauge on the bus running down toward empty.

There’s a very clever ticking clock in one scene in Notorious (written by Ben Hecht). The spy characters played by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman have to get down to the wine cellar to look for a clue during a big party at the Nazi mansion. They’ve stolen a key to get access. But the champagne is running out. They have to do the job before the butler needs to go to the wine cellar for more champagne.

As Grant and Bergman make their way down to the cellar we keep cutting back to the ice bin filled with champagne bottles. Each time the number of bottles is getting smaller and smaller. The popping of champagne corks are like nails in our heroes’ coffins.

At first it seems like there is plenty of time. But then one obstacle after another interferes – a jealous husband, chatty guests, a broken bottle – and next thing we know the last champagne bottles are coming out of that bin and our heroes are still in harms way.

In this case we don’t have a specific time on the clock – like high noon – when the jig is up. Hitchcock is using intercutting to show us the window of opportunity slowly closing. This technique goes back to the days of silent film – the woman on the ice floe heading for the waterfall or the woman tied to the train tracks as the train approaches.

And imagine how much less exciting the scene would be if there was enough champagne in that bin to last the whole party.

Perhaps you've already realized that what we're talking about here is suspense. Ticking clocks are critical to building suspense. And I'll talk in more detail about suspense in my next post.

Does your story suffer from a lack of urgency? Try adding a ticking clock. Got a scene that lacks intensity? Ticking clock. It’s a powerful screenwriting tool.

No comments: