Michaeline: We aren’t here forever, so for goodness’ sake, set some deadlines

cherry tree on left, old pine on right, frames a cemetery with a snowy mountain in the background

“Every year, the cherry blooms, the flowers scatter.” — Matsuo Basho
Some deadlines cannot be extended. (photo by Michaeline Duskova, May 2, 2015: a cemetery in Shimizu) 年々や桜を肥やす花の塵

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!)

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: We aren’t here forever, so for goodness’ sake, set some deadlines

  1. Good idea! That reminds me of the time lock in the movie version of Beauty and the Beast — the Beast must get true love’s kiss (or something) before the last rose petal falls.

    Also, there the wonderful O Henry story, The Last Leaf, which until today, I only read in ESL version. I love the original, which I found here: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LasLea.shtml I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Johnsie, felled by the Spanish flu, says she’s going to die when the last leaf falls . . . . What a tearjerker! I have a certain fondness for O Henry.

    As for today, mission accomplished! What a lovely day for flower viewing . . . .

  2. Pingback: Jilly: Looking Beyond the Draft | Eight Ladies Writing

  3. It sounds like your cherry blossoms are on the same timetable as ours. There are several on our very short street, and around Mon/Tues they were fabulous! Just today, the tops have started shedding their flowers. DC, where my daughter now lives, had their peak about 3 weeks ago, even though we’re really not that much farther north – weird.

    As for story time locks, I often start with them in place, but find the story often outgrows them, if that makes sense. In my WF story My Girls, the time lock in the first half of the book is that the main protag’s ex-husband is getting out of prison and she has to get some stuff done before he reinserts himself in her life. Then he gets released a few weeks early, so all hell breaks loose earlier, as well.

    • Actually, I think that happens a lot — there’s a time lock in the beginning, but as the plot thickens, the time lock is moved up. Didn’t that happen in The Great Game? I may be misremembering. Something like, “Oh, you have 48 hours to figure this out. Nope, you pissed me off, I’m only giving you six now.” Or something like that. Maybe not . . . . I’m sure someone has used that, though.

      Anyway, good, solid traditional craftsmanship! (LOL, especially because today when I mapped out my plot points, I did the same thing — a two-week deadline, and then something happened which meant things had to finish happening in 48 hours. So, I hope it’s A Thing.)

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