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Robert's Rules of Writing #53: Set an Alarm Clock

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Set an alarm clock? Why in the world would a writer want to set an alarm clock?

Masello gives reasons to set two alarm clocks, actually. The first alarm clock is the one you set to make sure you get to your desk in the morning.

The second alarm clock is the one you place in your fiction.

I've heard this sort of advice before, usually phrased not as an alarm clock but as a ticking time bomb. Indeed, Masello refers to a time bomb later on in his essay. On the surface, it's pretty good advice. If you want your readers to keep reading, giving your protagonist not only major stakes but a time limit is a good way to keep a plot moving forward. Obvious examples come out of thrillers, where lives are at stake, and the protagonists have to race the clock to rescue someone or save their own lives.

I've used quieter versions of the alarm clock in my own work; for example, I've written stories where scientists are racing to perform their experiments and prove their theories before funding is pulled from their projects. Perhaps it's not as exciting as a detective trying to rescue a kidnap victim before the kidnappers commit murder, but it's still a race against the clock.

On the other hand, there are certain types of stories where I'd say a ticking clock might be superfluous. For example, if you're writing more of a mood piece, or an internal monologue, a ticking clock might not be something you'd want to add. And there are also times when you might want the clock to stop, especially if you've created a new world for your fiction that you want your characters -- and your readers -- to explore. In those cases, the ticking clock might be too much of a distraction.

However, if your story just feels like it's sitting there, and the plot isn't moving forward, I'd suggest figuring out a way to add that tick of the clock. At the very least, it'll get your protagonist moving.

A deadline has a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. And speaking of which, I need to get back to this proposal...

Copyright © Michael Burstein

Comments

A third thing a ticking clock is good for: Having a ticking clock at your elbow while writing (I sometimes us a kitchen timer) keeps me from daydreaming or fussing over the writing. I just force the story out, because I'm running out of time and have to leave for work soon.

Re: Tick, tick

if said mcguffin involved a time deadline of some sort, i would say yes.
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