One of the things we always want as writers is to keep readers engaged, to hold their interest all the way from Page One to The End. The Ticking Time Bomb scenario can be really effective for this, and Jonathan Vars is here to give us some tips on how to put it to good use in our stories.
Tension: it’s the tempo that keeps your story flowing at a rapid pace with readers quickly flipping the pages to find out what happens next. Creating tension brings a story to life; it draws in the all-important emotional element that will keep your audience hooked.
One of the important things to remember is that tension comes in many different forms, each with a unique set of features that can be implemented in your story. One of the most effective uses of tension is The Time Bomb: an imminent disaster which looms closer and closer with each tick of the clock.
If written correctly, a time bomb plot device can keep your readers captivated from page one, breathlessly waiting to find out if the hero can save the day before the clock counts down to zero. Although there are many factors to keep in mind when including this plot device, there are three major points to consider for it to work.
Stress the Consequences
The tension of a time bomb lies in the gravity of the disaster that will occur once the hands of the clock come together. With this being the case, it is absolutely vital that the reader understand fully the consequences of the situation. To convey this adequately, know the answers the the following questions:
• What does the protagonist stand to lose?
• How will other characters be affected?
• How will the central plot be altered by the clock reaching zero?
Other tips to keep in mind:
• Make use of arguments and stressful dialogue sequences
• Emphasize the current time remaining as the clock ticks down
• Don’t be afraid of repetition in dialogue, as this is quite natural in high-stress situations
One important aspect to remember is that lives don’t necessarily have to be on the line to evoke tension. Your audience can be just as emotionally invested in a high school basketball game with only a few seconds left on the clock. Remember: stress the consequences so readers know what’s at stake
The next area you’ll need to focus on is the Aggravator: the obstacle, obstructionist, or entity standing in the way of the protagonist. Think of the Aggravator as the “builder” of the time bomb.
Nearly always represented by the central antagonist, the Aggravator is the presence thwarting the protagonist in his or her attempts to stave off calamity. The Aggravator serves as a source of added tension and frustration to the reader; where the protagonist presents a solution, the Aggravator presents a problem.
Other tips to keep in mind:
• Allow the Aggravator to gain the upper hand initially; picture an ominous voice whispering “tick tock, tick tock” into the phone
• Similar to stressing the consequences of the time bomb itself, make the Aggravator and his/her potential to hinder or thwart a solution fully known
• The Aggravator does not have to be represented by a human; it be something as simple as a locked door
Also, the Aggravator doesn’t have to be “evil” for him or her (or it) to work for your story. If your plot centers around a young girl starring in a middle school play, the Aggravator can manifest in the form of stage fright or a sudden sore throat on the night of the performance.
The last factor in the trifecta of time bomb tension is the concept of false turns. If your story has already placed readers on the edge of their seats, a false turn will send them all the way to the floor.
Picture this: The hero races through the building, the killer right behind him. As he stumbles against a doorway, his car keys fall out of his pocket and he continues on without noticing.
This, in a nutshell, is a false turn: the critical mistake that drains away precious time. The purpose of this technique is to ratchet an already tense situation up several notches.
Other tips to keep in mind:
• Information breakdown is an excellent way to send your protagonist off in the wrong direction
• Make use of your aggravator; allow him or her to manipulate events and confuse or mislead the protagonist
• Don’t forget about stressing the consequences! If your hero makes a wrong turn, make sure the audience understands the implications
While it may seem uncomfortable or foreign to allow your protagonist to take false turns or make mistakes, allowing this will not only heighten tension surrounding your time bomb plot device but will also provide realism for your character.
A time bomb plot device is an incredibly efficient way to evoke tension for your readers. Investing the energy to fully develop all three factors will keep your audience hooked from page one. And don’t forget to vary your approaches with these techniques, dialing the tension up or down to suit your story.
Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, painting, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.