How to use Time in a story


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Let me tell you a story. Years ago, when I was a young whippersnapper, I was directing television documentaries, spending months out of the country, and traveling to some places that were not particularly safe. After one harrowing experience after another, I came home thinking I needed to do something else with my life, or I wasn't going to have a life. And as I've yet to see a film (or TV show) worth dying for, I looked around for something less dangerous to do for a living.

In those days there was a popular TV show on the air called LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Most of you don't remember that show, or its star, Michael Landon, but at the time folks loved it, and I loved it. And one day I was watching it and I thought to myself, "Self, you can write a show like that, and no one will try to shoot you while you're doing it." Little did I know. Ha! Okay, I'm just kidding, but I was a complete and utter dummy, so I set off to write an episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

First off, you should know that TV shows have what are called bibles. A bible is a document that spells out everything about the show: who will fall in love with whom, who will hate who, and what's going to happen over the next ten years of the show's run. And of course, being a dummy, I didn't know this, and I didn't know shows like LITTLE HOUSE never bought scripts from dummies like me. I wrote mine in pencil on a yellow legal pad (because I didn't know how to type), and because I didn't know how TV scripts were formatted, I wrote it like a short story. In other words, I did everything possible to jinx myself.

After I finished this opus, I tracked down LITTLE HOUSE's production office on the Twentieth Century Fox lot (where I would later spend a lot of time) and, to put a final nail in my coffin, stuffed my script in a manila envelope and mailed it to them.

Months went by and I eventually gave up hearing from them. But then one day, to my surprise, I received a letter from LITTLE HOUSE's Executive Producer. He said the show was on summer hiatus, and everyone was gone except him. He'd been sitting in his office, bored to tears, when my script had shown up at his office. He said they get scripts from dummies like me all the time (he actually said it a lot nicer, but I'm paraphrasing), and when they do their secretary tosses them in the trash unread. But his secretary was gone and he was bored, so he decided to read my script to pass the time. Well, surprise, surprise, he loved it and had sent it to London where Michael Landon was vacationing with his family. And guess what? Michael Landon had loved it, as well. My feet didn't touch the ground for a month.

The moral of the story? If you're going to write for television, you can make your life a lot less stressful if you learn a few rules. Because it's only when you know the rules that you can successfully break them. And breaking the rules, successfully, is what will separate you from the dummies like me.

So what are these rules? There are more than I can address in such a short piece, but the first thing you should know right off is that television writing is formulaic. And one of the things they like you to do is to begin your story with a "happy family". In the happy family formula, you enter the story while the family is...well, happy. Everything's right in their world. But then comes the inciting action. This is where the family's happy world is turned upside down, and they're sent on a quest to turn their world right side up again. This, of course, they eventually do, and your story ends with them being a happy family again.

The problem with formulaic writing is that it's predictable, and when you're brought in to write a show, the head writer will inevitably tell you that if you can come up with a twist on the formula, they would love it. But if you do, know this--it damn sure better be; 1) a good twist, and 2) one that fits their formula. If you can do that successfully, you'll write lots of scripts. And if you can't, well, if you're me, you'll be back overseas getting shot at.

Oh, and by the way, never, ever submit a spec script to a TV show like I did. Get an agent first. Your agent will then send out samples of your writing to the shows you'd like to write for. Then, hopefully, someone from a show (usually the head writer and/or executive producer) will bring you in and assign you a script because, after all, they know their show's bible, and you don't.

So, back to the rules. As I said, there are a lot of them, and not all of them have to do with the television formula. Quite a few have to do with how you tell a good story, whether it's a TV show, a film, or a novel. I previously mentioned one of them, "inciting action", and for those of you who do not know what that is, an inciting action is that moment in your story where the plot kicks off. This can be a murder, a plane crash, or anything that will create a problem that has to be resolved. And if you're not a dummy like me, you will enter your story at the last possible moment, just when that inciting action takes place.

Now, finally, let's talk about the "ticking clock". Didn't think I'd get to it, did you? Well, I was trying to build the suspense. But here it is--other than inciting action, there are many, many tools you can use to tell a good story and one of my all-time favs is called the "ticking clock". If you're unfamiliar with this term, it means you literally (or figuratively) assign a ticking clock to your story. In other words, the conflict must be resolved within a defined time period. A classic example of this, and perhaps the first time it had ever been done well, was in a Gary Cooper movie called HIGH NOON.

Remember that film? If not, it won an Academy Award, so you should check it out. In the story, Gary is the sheriff of a small town, and many years before our story begins he had arrested "the bad guy" and sent him to prison. As we enter the story, we see the town as the traditional "happy family". Everyone likes Gary and thinks he's brave because he sent " the bad guy" to prison.

But then, bang, here comes our inciting action. The sheriff (and all the rest of the town's happy family) learns "the bad guy" has been released from prison, and he and a whole team of bad guys are coming to town to kill Gary, and probably a few townspeople as well. And here's where the ticking clock comes into play. The bad guy and his hoard of nasty cohorts will be arriving in town on the noon train.

Tick, tick, tick...

So Gary goes around town, trying to get his happy family to help him fight the bad guys, but now the happy family isn't so happy anymore, and they would just like all of this disruption (meaning Gary and the bad guys) to go away. So they tell Gary, "Don't be a dummy, get the hell out of town." But Gary refuses. After all, he's Gary Cooper, and Gary Cooper would never run from a fight. So he decides to stay and face the bad guys on his own.

And what the director did then was freaking brilliant. As noon approaches, he cuts to various clocks around town. And every time Gary looks at one of these clocks, he sees himself getting closer and closer to his inevitable death.

And so, to make a long story short, the clock finally strikes twelve, the train shows up, and the bad guys get off. There is a horrendous, very long, running gun battle, during which the townsfolk have a change of heart and come to Gary's aid, and Gary not only wins the battle, barely, he also wins the girl.

Wait, did I tell you about the girl? Oops, sorry about that. There's always a love interest in a good story. And sure enough, Gary wins her heart, and the happy family is a happy family once more.

The twist? Gary decides he can't stand his gutless happy family anymore and leaves town. And when I saw this movie I remember saying to myself, "Wait, he's leaving town? Why didn't he leave before?"

Why? Because he's Gary Cooper, that's why, and Gary Cooper is brave and noble and...blah, blah, blah...

But that's not the point, is it? The point is the ticking clock works in stories, and it works really well. Why? Because it emulates life. Life is all about a ticking clock. We're all counting down to something--the weekend, a date, a vacation, death. When you're young, the clock moves too slowly. You can't wait to be ten, thirteen, twenty-one--but then you turn thirty and the hour hand starts moving faster. And pretty soon you want it to slow down. But you can't slow it down, and suddenly you're ninety, living in a nursing home, and NOW that freaking clock slows down, and you sit in your tiny room day after day wishing your happy family would call you or come see you, but they don't, and all you have to look forward to is that clock finally ticking down to a stop.

Depressing? Well, none of us get out of town alive--unless we're Gary Cooper riding off to a new adventure.

So what am I saying? I'm saying, don't be a dummy. Use the ticking clock in your writing. Build a whole story around it. Show the clock (or something like it) counting down the seconds to the final battle. Doing so will give your story structure and momentum, and you'll have your readers flipping pages as fast as they can.

Sound fun? Then go ahead, and give it a try.