Posted by: Kerry Gans | November 19, 2013

Making Time the Enemy

All writers have heard of “the ticking clock” device. That is when a character must accomplish something before a set time—defuse a bomb before it detonates, evacuate a city before a tsunami hits, find a child before the child dies from lack of medical help. It is a well-known device to create tension.

But I thought this week about how time itself can be even more the enemy than we make it. Time, after all, is a human construct. Or rather, marking time with a clock and hours is a human construct. And sometimes, clocks are wrong.

We just changed our clocks here—the yearly “fall back” (which I enjoyed much more before I had a preschooler who didn’t let me sleep the extra hour we gained). I went through the yearly ritual of re-setting the clocks in the kitchen and family room and bedrooms, my watch, the clock in the car.

My husband prefers to leave his clock on the old time for about a week after the switch. The result is a massive time warp that occurs at the midpoint of our bed—it is an hour earlier on my side than on his. It’s easy to get jetlag walking across our bedroom.

So of course I wondered what would happen to a protagonist who had to be somewhere (let’s say to catch a train) at a certain time (say 8 AM), and the clock he was using was wrong. Or the time change occurred and because of the story events he didn’t realize it. It could make for a very interesting wrinkle—depending on which way the time switched, he would either be an hour early or an hour late for that train.

What? It’s impossible to forget the time change? Well, computers and cell phones do tend to automatically update, but it is actually very easy to forget the time change. On my honeymoon, my husband and I got up one morning and packed our bags and went down to the lobby to wait for the shuttle. Which didn’t arrive on time. When more than a half hour had passed, we asked the desk to check on it. They looked at us strangely and told us the shuttle wasn’t due yet: the time had fallen back an hour and we forgot, so we were an hour early! If it was that easy to forget while on vacation, imagine if you were preoccupied with saving the world.

So I’m thinking it might be fun to play with time in a story sometime. Even something small, like people who set their clocks 15 minutes fast so they are never late. A protagonist who didn’t know they were fast would feel added pressure as the “ticking clock” seemed to suddenly speed up. And “falling back” or “springing forward”? Great fodder.

Can you think of any other ways time can work against a character? Or any other things we take for granted that can really mess up our protagonist’s day?

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