“THE TICKING CLOCK: Often, usually early in the story, a clever writer plants a time lock, a structural device requiring some specific event to occur, or some particular problem to be resolved, within a certain period of time. This serves to compress the story’s tension. Of course, not all stories lend themselves to a ‘ticking clock,’ but the resourceful writer digs deep to locate a method and a place for integrating a meaningful one into the story. An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie” –Stephen Cannell
Ticking Clocks are a form of narrative hook. When Jack Bauer only has 12 hours to stop the evil terrorist cabal from setting off the nuclear warhead, that’s a Ticking Clock. When the guys in Role Models only have a few hours to get to their hearing, that’s also a ticking clock. The closer you get to “time zero” the more tension is built up. The trick to using the Ticking Clock effectively is to manage the payoff. Suspense comes when people know the consequences of missing the deadline are dire. They don’t need to be apocalyptic, but relative to the context of the story they need to be significant.
You can also use Ticking Clocks to keep the story moving if the Second Act seems to be dragging. Insert a time element, and give the protagonist something to race again. By throwing a context around your exposition, you can breath a lot more life into the action series.
If this classic clip from Batman teaches us anything it’s the importance of Ticking Clocks, well, that and that sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb.