Deadlines are an intrinsic part of being a writer. You have to a specific date to turn in the first draft. Edits are due by a subsequent date, The book promotion should be in place by another date. Rinse and Repeat.
But this isn’t a post about WRITING deadlines – it’s one about writing DEADLINES.
In other words why should writers have all the fun? Let’s spread anxiety into our books as well. (Haha!)
I’ve always called this feature a Time Lock and basically, you write a time limit into the story that affects your characters. They can be hiking down the mountain the day before a volcano erupts, cleaning up blood before the first guest arrives to the party, or stuck in a traffic jam on the way to a job interview at noon. Anything that puts a constraint of time on your characters can force them into action. This restriction can serve many functions in a story.
- As an inciting incident. You need to get your character moving but they are perfectly happy in their ordinary world. In order to get them off the couch and motivated, you give them a problem – with a time limit. This keeps the characters from procrastinating and pushes them into action, just as it does people every day. This is art imitating reality. For example, Renter Bob wants to buy the little house on the corner from the amenable owner. He’s steadily saving the money for a down-payment while he works contentedly at the library until… the owner dies unexpectedly. He learns her heirs are going to auction off the property at the end of the week. Bob needs to get the rest of his money together now! He needs to contact the heirs about cutting a deal and obtain financing from the bank. He needs to do something or his dream home will slip through his fingers.
- To raise the stakes (and the tension). You may not need a time lock to get your characters going. They work toward their goals, but the middle of your story is bogging down with their steady (and boring) achievements. So then they find out their goal is even more urgent because they now have a deadline. It sends your characters scrambling to reassess their progress and achieve their goals faster. (And don’t forget, when you’re in a hurry, you make mistakes – writing gold!) For example, Sarah has been negotiating with the bank robbers and they’ve agreed to allow a hostage to leave the building. But as the young woman emerges from the bank, Sarah notices with horror that the young woman has an explosive strapped to her chest with a countdown timer. The swiftly changing numbers indicate that the bomb will explode in less than five minutes. Sarah needs to get the bomb off the woman, disarm the bomb, protect her team, and prevent the robbers from escaping. But she only has a few minutes to do it all.
- To bring on the Big Black Moment. Your character has done everything right. They’re seconds away from achieving their goal, obtaining the affection of their one true love, and rainbows are starting to peep out of the clouds. And then they find out they missed their deadline. For example, Chris has slaved over his masterpiece for more than a month now. He sacrificed family time. He worked until midnight every night and missed more than a few meals. But the sculpture is perfect. The proportions are true. It is a model representation of beauty seen through the eyes of modern society. Now all Chris has to do is get it to the competition for judging. But after dashing into the gallery, Chris sees the prizes on the paintings. With horror he realizes that the art competition finished up yesterday. How will he go forward? His self-confidence has suffered a blow. Will he find another competition? Can he sell the piece and make up for the lost time with his family?
Deadlines cause stress, anxiety, and panic among writers in their daily lives but on the written page, they are valuable tools to manage pacing and grab the reader’s attention. Everyone has tried to reach a goal while under a time limit. This makes the Time Lock a way of engendering empathy and emotion from readers. They sympathize and root for your character because they know what it feels like to be under the pressure of a deadline. As a writer, you can use that knowledge to make the reader more invested in your characters and their story.