Tick, Tick, Tick

Tick, Tick, Tick

It’s impossible to talk about timing without identifying the timing device in a novel.  ‘Nother Mike asked me about the practice of having a timer in a novel, and he was half amused, because he was referring to the clock that stops at the last minute.  (Galaxy quest – “it always stops at one second.”)

I’ll admit that those timing devices are so cliched that at this point everyone snorts when reading it.

And yet, unless you’re reading an unstructured “literary” novel, I guarantee it has a timing device.  And if you are writing anything but an unstructured “literary” novel, you need a timing device.

“But Sarah” you say, because you’re helpful that way.  “What do you mean by a timing device if we can’t use clocks?”

Well, you can use clocks, it’s just become a – shudder – movie cliche.  But a timing device can be anything: there is a bomb hidden in a metro area, and our detective must find the terrorist before it blows; or the man of her dreams thinks she hates him and is going to marry his second cousin five times removed, unless the MC can kiss him and convince him she loves him; or the suspected killer is going to be found and might be killed, unless the detective finds the real killer; or unless this expedition to the exo planet works, the entire world will starve.  Or…

Look, one thing you have to realize, while you’re writing, is that your story and your characters are fascinating to you in a way they’re not to anyone else.  They’re YOURS.  They got into your brain like a bug and stayed long enough and bothered you long enough that you had to write them.  You care about them.  You’re going to be fascinated by their shopping expedition, their cuddling with the cat, and their walk in the park.

Readers, need a reason to care.  And if you want to have slightly slower moments: like the cuddling with the cat and the walk in the park, you NEED to give the reason a motive to care and a sense of urgency.

Think about it.  A walk in the park is a walk in the park but if you know while he’s walking in the park, his fiancé might be having her toes toasted, you’re going to read more carefully and more attentively and also with the sense of “come on, now.  Go rescue Topsy while she still has toes!” “What did you just see at the park?  Will this help you find Topsy?”

The timing device is a subplot with a limited “closing date” which lends urgency to the main plot of the book.

In a thriller these are often very visible, in your face, and show you the worst that can happen RIGHT up front.  “They blew up Paris. If we don’t find this bomb, London is next.”  And the book would open with Paris blowing up.

In a mystery they’re often subtle and if it’s a cozy it’s often the romance that’s threatened.  If I had a dime for EVERY time Agatha Christie has said the equivalent of “if this isn’t solved, we’ll all be under suspicion forever and so and so will never dare marry so and so, and he’s set to go to Egypt next week with a broken heart” I’d be a very rich woman.  In Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries, it is often the falsely accused that lends urgency.  If you don’t find the true killer, the suspect-in-hiding will be caught and killed.

Sometimes it’s not so much a time limit as the inevitable end of the world “if this goes on.”  Heinlein does this a lot.  In Puppet Masters, for instance, the timing device consists of showing us how much worse things are getting.  In the Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, from the knowledge that eventually Earth will come and “spank baby” so that all their progress in the revolution also hastens this climax.

BUT the timing device is there, everywhere.  TRUST me.

So, go find a mystery, a science fiction or fantasy and a romance.  Make it stuff you’ve read before, if you can.  Now, isolate the timing device in each.  Why is it there?  What’s its effect on the plot and your sense of the “timing” and “urgency” of the book?

Now, how do you apply that to your own writing?

11 thoughts on “Tick, Tick, Tick

  1. My current one has astronomical disasters on a schedule. Might need to shorten up the time frame for dealing with it, though. I feel like I’m taking an on-the-job “Learn to Edit” class, siccing my improved understanding on old manuscripts. You guys are great teachers.

      1. Lesson: Tick, Tick, Tick
        (Which reminds me of a humorous song by the Kingston Trio, but nevermind.)

        Aware of the necessity of having a ticking time bomb, I have worked one into my current WIP.

        Dolly and her sidekick get transported to a parallel Earth — Faerie — ruled by Elves, a branch species of the hominid family. No one is sure when exactly Faerie and our familiar Earth split, but everyone is relatively certain it happened just after (in geologic timescales) the Elf species and the Neanderthal species split away from each other and/or the parent branch of the hominid tree. Probably more than 100,000, but fewer than 1 million years ago.

        The two “worlds” are more-or-less parallel, being closely related islands in an infinite sea of probabilities. Different worlds are not discrete, but rather blend together in a continuum. The difference between one reality and the next might be as slight as the placement of a single-celled organism — one individual — or as gross as the explosion/non-explosion of a galaxy. (Or more: a variation in the timing of the Big Bang, for one possible example.)

        Travel between the “worlds” is possible because there are loci where probabilities converge, creating “windows” or “gateways” between the worlds. Some of these are in locations accessible to individual sophonts. Thus the long-term (human time scale) traffic between Terra and Faerie and the relatioships between Elves and Humans.

        While the laws of nearby universes range from similar to the same, it seems inevitable that slight differences in probabilities will make for different rates of time flows. The inhabitants of these two related worlds have made note of this in myths and legends — tales of faerie mounds and lives spent overnight on one or the other worlds.

        Dolly knows none of this when she first is transported from Earth to Faerie. But she is met by a team of special agents of the Elf crown princess who aided in the creation of Dolly’s body almost immediately she lands on the other side. In the process of their transporting her across the surface of Faerie, they inform her of the running clock. Because of the differences in time-flow-rate, and because a living body adapts gradually to the laws of physics on one side or the other, over time, it will inexorably adapt to the new time-flow, and eventually be unable to travel safely back to its home world. Stay on the foreign world long enough, and you will drift out of synch with your native time-flow and years or centuries will pass before you even attempt to return. Nobody knows for certain how long this process will take — how long a visitor from another planet is “safe” to remain off world. Nor is there any guidance on how to figure out how long it MIGHT take, given a particular set of variables. Just … nobody knows.

        However, the Elves are able to control the gates to some extent and travel back and forth semi-reliably, which they have been doing for millennia. Dolly discovers this about halfway through her adventures on Faerie.

        As Dolly wants desperately to get back to Earth — back to her lover and the life she knows — this puts time pressure on her efforts. She cannot take her time; she must run the race to get back home as quickly as she can, before her body drifts out of synch and she or her man ages beyond reach, or her body sickens and dies on her return to Earth.

        My struggle is to exposit this in a “natural” -seeming fashion, without being too obvious or lame, without hitting the reader over the head with it, but still making it clear that this is what is going on.

        1. Yes, I could see this working as timer device. Exposition without hitting the reader over the head, can also be a matter of timing. I’ll take it up today, if I may. (And sorry to be so late. Con played HAVOC with me.)

  2. Is it okay to talk about authors by name? I just started re-reading Conflict of Honors, one of the Liaden universe books. (The one where Shan meets Priscilla.) So would the timing device be the movement of the ship along it’s route, first at the station where Shan picks her up and then the next where events intensify, and then the next stop… I think it only goes to three after he picks her up, but maybe four. It’s not a countdown or time-bomb, but it does work to physically move things along as tension ratchets up and there’s a little bit of “oh, no I can’t get left behind when the ship leaves,” but only a little. Priscilla is reminded once or twice that she signed a contract to remain until they reach Liad.

    I think that the idea is clear, even if someone isn’t familiar with the story. Is that the sort of sub-plot meant?

    One of my stories that I actually got sort of far on (relatively speaking) was just so wrong, pace-wise. I could tell it was wrong. All rushed and jumping around. I sort of figured that it just needed to be slowed down with more words and description and better transitions. But maybe what it needed was an actual subplot or two.

    What I’m working on the most right now has a time-ticker that actually involves time and a dead-line, but also has a romance and also has a subplot/plot about the opposition my heroine is facing while trying to meet her deadlines and achieve her dreams and destiny. And as far as I can tell, the pacing is pretty good.

    1. I think what it needs is coherency. Mind-focusing. So let me figure out how to expatiate on it. Yes, a timing device can work as focusing device, too.

  3. I just finished (tore through, actually) Ill Met in the Arena by Dave Duncan. He used timers, yes, but they kept morphing as the narrator gradually revealed his quest.

  4. My short fiction generally uses events (stop an invasion, flood cresting requiring rescues, one month to inspect a planet’s defenses) as the time marker. The novel seems to be developing two or three. The overall time span is five generations, because that is when the full effects of the planned genetic modifications are supposed to become apparent. Alas for the characters, those modifications do indeed become apparent, just not as planned. The second time marker is a “prophecy” from a deranged and charismatic religions figure, who becomes determined to make his vision come true. The third is getting people reorganized and settled in before a second winter comes and the food reserves are gone. The time driving the action overall seems to be “have to get reorganized and resettled before our enemies realize that we barely have the population to defend ourselves, let alone maintain our colony worlds.”

    1. I think you might need to prioritize one stronger than the other timing devices, to avoid sounding dispersed. Mind, I’m saying this while not having read your novel, so I could be wrong.

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