By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

There is a bomb, of course. The movie is almost over. The clock on the bomb, the one with the red numbers, counts back 15, 14, 13…. At another location, the hero fights
Kathy Flann
with the villain, trying to wrest the detonator from his hand. They’re on the cliff face of a snowy mountain. Or maybe they’re on a burning oilrig that creaks and sways. 12, 11, 10…. We’ve been sitting in these movie seats for a couple hours now, engaging in a whole lot less action than those people on the screen. The villain gets in a good lick, and the bloodied hero falls and slides, nearly toppling from a great height to certain death. He grabs hold of something at the last moment a jagged rock, a railing. He dangles by one arm. 9, 8, 7….

Even though we know what’s going to happen, we grip the armrests. We hold our breath. We tune out the throngs around us the crunching popcorn, the sniffing and shifting, the sounds of fingernails picking Jujubees from the teeth. We are transported into the scene, and it seems more real than what’s happening around us (probably for the best when it comes to those Jujubees). But why? How is this engagement accomplished?

Stories rely on the ticking clock. Action movies rely on this device more literally than most other stories. The bomb provides an actual ticking clock. Or there’s a countdown to a nuclear war or to a dramatic data transfer onto a USB stick.

More figuratively, there are other types of “clocks.” The burning oilrig is going to collapse soon, judging by the creaking and swaying and the burning debris, and the hero has limited time to escape from it. A person’s arm can only hold one’s entire body weight for so long, and as the hero dangles, we are aware of this time limitation, as well. We study the pain on his face, worrying about the lactic acid accumulating in his muscle. Often, there is a “damsel in distress,” which may or may not be a damsel it could be a child or an elephant or a lovable paunchy policeman. The “damsel” is tied up and something dangerous approaches, such as a spreading fire or killer cockroaches. There are ticking clocks within ticking clocks.

Time is the organizing principle of our lives. It is finite. We only have so much of it. So when we sit down to read a book or watch a movie, there is a period of probation when we decide if the story will be worth our time. Many people research reviews in advance of engaging with a story to save themselves from investing a limited resource their time in the wrong one.

In order to make our stories worth readers’ actual time, we must pay attention to time in the fictional world. Literary stories may not rely on time bombs, the way that action movies do, but a clock is most certainly ticking. For example, the first line of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” The story answers this question right away: Why is today the day we meet Gregor Samsa? Well, duh. It’s the day he wakes as a giant insect.

Gregor tries to keep his family from entering his bedroom and seeing him in his horrible beetle form. As readers, we understand that the amount of time he’ll be successful with this strategy is finite. His mother is never going to be satisfied with his lame excuses for staying locked in his room and shirking his job. It is a ticking clock. How long will it take before his secret is discovered? How soon until the door opens? We even share his concern that he will be fired if he doesn’t get to work soon, even though that should probably be lower on his list of anxieties.

In my job as a creative writing professor, I have seen many early drafts miss the mark because of inattention to time. It is a common problem of early drafts to begin with several pages of backstory or summary, for example, and for the action start on page five or page seven. Maybe the action is quite exciting when it finally comes, but for many readers (and editors), this will be too late. They will have moved on to the next story. Students often worry: How will the reader understand the action if I don’t provide the background information?

Happily, there are ways to start the clock and simultaneously provide the context readers need. Could the writer rearrange the story, such that the important background information is integrated into the action? Could the action (i.e. clock) start on page one or two? I encourage writers to weave action and backstory together. If readers get invested in the action and if the backstory is never more than a couple sentences at a time, the readers will barely notice the backstory. They’ll breathe it in like air.

Another common stage in early drafts is for the action to begin right away, on page one, but for nothing much to be at stake. The character is having an ordinary day for five or seven pages. She is dusting her end table and buying groceries. As readers, we don’t have the sense that there’s any urgency to these tasks. Does it matter if she completes the activities at 11am or 4pm? Or indeed, if she completes them at all on this particular day? If the answer is no, then we are likely to start paying attention to the person next to us who’s picking Jujubees from her molars.

Here are some crucial questions for writers to ask: Why is today the day of the story? Why this moment? Why didn’t the story start five minutes earlier or later? What’s new and different for this character? The extent to which readers understand this situation on page one affects the likelihood that they will turn to page two. What makes this moment, more than any other in the character’s life, worthy of a story?

If we understand that, for example, today is the day that the hero’s boss admits to embezzling from the company and if we also understand that the boss has been like a mother to our hero, we will feel compelled to stay tuned. What will the hero do?

Maybe the hero keeps the secret for a while and even covers it up, and then the internal review team shows up to ask some questions. What then? 6, 5, 4…. There may not be a bomb with a literal clock attached to it, but we feel the countdown regardless. We have the sense of the hero dangling from a ledge.

Perhaps it becomes clear that they’re going to get away with it and the battle is with the hero’s own conscious. The boss books a plane reservation to Mexico and packs a bag. The choice is whether to call the authorities or live forever with being complicit.  3, 2, 1….

Time is the hero’s enemy, driving her mercilessly toward a resolution for which she does not feel prepared. Conversely, time can be, if the writer manages it well, the story’s very best friend. When there’s an urgent race against the fictional clock, the reader loses track of real time, and the story seems to last a mere moment. It is as fleeting as breath.



Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.

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