My kids’ last day of school was Thursday and already we hear that ticking clock. The first day of September is just around the corner and there is so much to do between now and then! The time constraint adds tension to the story of our summer, just as it does in literature with the literary device referred to as the ticking clock.
During a lecture at the 2009 SCBWI Western Washington conference, literary agent Michael Stearns spoke about the use of a ticking clock in novels to add suspense. In an online article titled Adding Suspense to a Novel -- the Ticking Clock, author Marg McAlister suggests that the main requirements to use this literary device are:
1. Plan to have something big happen at the end of the chosen period of time, with severe and unwanted consequences for the main character if he/she doesn't meet the deadline.
2. Choose a period of time during which the action of the story will play out – a day, a week, 39 days, a year – the time period doesn't matter, as long as the main character faces serious challenges to complete whatever is necessary in the time frame.
How does device work in One Crazy Summer? First, let’s look at the “period of time during with the action of the story will play out”. This is established before one even turns the first page—the title One Crazy Summer implies that there is a time limit being imposed. We are promised that something is going to take place over the course of a summer, and as the novel progresses, we see that time-clock ticking down.
And what is the ‘something big’ that is going to happen? The story opens with the girls flying to Oakland to meet, and get to know, Cecile—the mother who abandoned them for reasons that are not altogether clear to either Delphine or the reader. When Cecile collects them at the airport in chapter two it is apparent that one month may not be enough time to get to know this woman who seems determined to keep her distance. The ‘something big’ is that Delphine just may return to New York without having gotten to know her mother. She may never come to understand why her mother left three young daughters to be raised by their father.
As the story progresses we are made aware of time ticking, and with each passing day it seems less and less likely that the girls will foster any kind of relationship with Cecile. In fact when they have only been there for one day they are ready to go home:
‘I wanna go home.’
I knew which home they meant. I said, ‘We’re going back home in twenty-seven days’ (p. 60).
It is close to the end of their time in Oakland when Cecile gets arrested, and still Delphine has not gotten close to her mother:
If Cecile had been arrested when we first arrived in Oakland, I would have called Pa, and Pa would have made sure my sisters and I were on a plane back to New York. Nothing would have made me happier than to leave Cecile and Oakland back then. But we hadn’t gotten what we came for. We didn’t really know our mother, and I couldn’t leave without knowing who she was (p. 178).
It isn’t until the very end of their stay that Cecile reveals to Delphine the truth about her own painful past. And it is not until the day they leave that Cecile finally demonstrates the kind of care and compassion the girls have been looking for all along.
If Delphine had a lifetime to figure out the secrets behind her mother’s actions and establish a relationship with her, there would be no story. Having just one month to accomplish these things adds tension, and propels the story forward.
StorySleuths Tip #79 — Establish a period of time during which your character must accomplish his/her goal, demonstrate time ticking down, and make sure your readers know what is at stake if the buzzer rings before the goal is met.
Post #5: Antagonist