Inventing the Countdown

Recently, I heard that a filmmaker invented the countdown.

Now, I don’t know if this is true, but the idea is certainly fascinating. The thought that a storyteller invented the “Five, four, three, two, one,” can help remind us how important a ticking clock is in storytelling. I won’t be speaking here specifically about how to include a ticking clock in a story, but more why it should be done.

Before I do that, though, let me go ahead and define what I mean when I say “ticking clock.” When I refer to a ticking clock, I’m referring to some sort of deadline that constrains the hero of the novel. The deadline tells us that the hero must complete his task by a certain time, whatever that time may be.

Of course, the ticking clock doesn’t have to literally be a ticking clock. In fact, it rarely is (unless we’re talking about 24). Usually it’s some sort of tragedy that will affect the hero. If we look at Lord of the Rings, the ticking clock there is Sauron’s march on the Middle-Earth. When the story begins, he hasn’t launched a full-scale invasion yet, but he’s gearing up to do so. Throughout all three books, then, the heroes are rushing to complete their task before Sauron can attack.

Let’s take a look at another example, this one outside of the fantasy genre. The Sherlock Holmes story, “Five Orange Pips,” is a great example of a ticking clock done well. In it, Sherlock has to solve the mystery before his employer is killed by…someone. The wonderful thing about this story, is that the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, doesn’t reveal when the clock will hit zero until just before it does. Instead, he tells us that there is a countdown, but doesn’t tell us what it’s at. This adds both tension, and an element of the unknown.

But, why is all this important? Why do we need ticking clocks?

Kurt Vonnegut said once “Make your characters want something right away, even if it’s only a glass of water.” Vonnegut is pointing out the necessity of a goal for your characters. If my story is just about a character living his life with no goal or purpose, then the story is boring. We all live life. We don’t want to read a novel about what we do every single day.

But imagine that I have a goal, but I can take as long as I want to achieve it. To use Vonnegut’s example above, I want a glass of water, but am at the same time an alien who can survive forever without water. I simply want it because I feel like it. There’s no tension there.

Imagine making a New Year’s Resolution that has no deadline. In other words, imagine that the resolution started out with “At some point I want to go to the gym.” Great…you have a desire to go to the gym. But with no deadline, with no ticking clock, there’s no tension.

The reason a ticking clock is necessary is to create tension and conflict. With no tension and no conflict, wanting something simply isn’t enough. There’s no reason to keep reading because we have no worry that the hero won’t achieve their goal.

A storyteller may not have invented the countdown. But storytellers sure can use it.