As you can see from my photo, today is the peak of cherry blossom season in my area. Cherries, in Japanese culture, are a symbol of intransience of life – they bloom, only to fall after a short time of beauty. What a glorious, yet gloomy thought. Here today, gone tomorrow . . . .
While glumly contemplating the impermanence of it all, it suddenly reminded me of one of my favorite devices for increasing tension in a story: a time lock. I’m a natural-born procrastinator (and maybe most of us are), and my first drafts show it. My characters fluff around the book, looking for a plot, and reasons. But if I can get a time lock into place, suddenly, my characters don’t have time to goof off while drinking tea and eating cake under the cherry blossoms. They’ve got to get up and do something.
For example, cherry blossoms are my motivating time lock in real life today. They are at their peak. Tomorrow, I’m busy visiting a friend whose cherry blossoms have already passed. And the flowers will be scattered on the ground by Monday, leaving new green leaves behind. So, if I want to have a flower-viewing party with my daughter, it has to happen today. I don’t want to wait a year to enjoy the delicious weather.
Time locks, at their most obvious, are often ticking bombs. Look at the BBC Sherlock episode, “The Great Game”, where Sherlock is given 12 hours to find the madman who straps bombs to innocent bystanders. In fact, we are given a series of time locks, which become tighter and more fraught with emotion for the victims as the episode progresses.
Other time locks can include a birthday, a court order, a boss’s deadline (the stakes are higher if one could get fired), a villain’s deadline, the timing of a natural disaster (the asteroid/tsunami will strike in XX hours, and we must prepare as well as we can before all hell breaks loose), the amount of oxygen in a tank, or gas in a bus.
Deadlines often work in real life – you can make them work in your story, too. What’s your favorite fictional time lock? (Or heck, if you’ve got a good real-life example, please share!)