Thursday, 12 February 2004
The ticking bomb: it's a standard technique for ramping up tension in a story. Doesn't need to be a bomb, of course--any kind of deadline or ongoing process that poses jeopardy for a character we care about will work.
It took me a long time to understand that the real key is the jeopardy. If there's danger for your characters then you have tension; the ticking clock just heightens and focuses it. Without the jeopardy--without the bomb, whether actual or metaphorical--the ticking is just noise. (Everybody has some things that they get right away and others that take a lot longer to sink in. For me, this was one of the latter.)
One cheap way to heighten the tension still further is to accelerate the clock unexpectedly. The guys have 5 minutes to diffuse the bomb, but when they open it up they trip a booby trap and all of a sudden they have only 30 seconds!
It's easy to make fun of these techniques, because they've been used in a lot of bad fiction. But they've been used in a lot of good fiction as well. There's nothing wrong with using them when they work for a story.
Anyway, this all comes to my mind because of something that happened at work. We found out yesterday that we had to finish all the critical fixes by next Friday. So we divvied up the work and did our best to come up with a plan to do that. Today we find out that--oops!--they need all the critical fixes by Wednesday.
It'd be just like living in a trashy adventure novel, if characters in trashy adventure novels sat around in cubicles for 60 or 70 hours a week.