Nothing keeps an audience glued to their seats than a deadline. If the villain ties a lady to the railroad tracks, there’s no suspense until we see a train approaching. Now we want to know what will happen and we know we’ll be rewarded soon.
Every story needs a deadline. Without a deadline, your story has no reason to get done any time soon. That means your characters have no reason to do anything to move the story forward. With a deadline, all your characters have to move the story forward so every action is urgent and important. The deadline forces your characters to act or risk suffering the Horrible Consequence.
The deadline is usually defined by the villain and always works against the hero. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader sets the deadline by approaching the rebel base with the Death Star. In “Die Hard,” the terrorists have a deadline that involves blowing up the hostages on the roof. In “Finding Nemo,” the dentist’s niece will take Nemo and probably shake the bag and kill him if Marlin doesn’t save him in time.
A deadline creates suspense by causing us to wonder if the hero can make it in time before the villain succeeds. A deadline with a Horrible Consequence ratchets up the suspense because we know what terrible fate awaits the hero and the hero’s loved ones if the villain should succeed.
What happens if you don’t clearly define a deadline? You lose suspense because thee’s no hurry for the characters to do anything. When your characters have the option of procrastinating, your story will likely drag. Without this urgency pushing your characters forward, there’s no reason for them to do anything. Once the audience clearly understands the consequences of failure by not meeting a deadline, now all the characters are forced to act right now. Without the luxury of time, every moment and every action is crucial.
Think of the last minute of a close game in any sport. The time deadline clearly lets the audience know that they’re going to see a winner and a loser soon. This promise keeps the audience glued to their seats. Eliminate this time deadline and audiences lose this sense of urgency and hence, don’t care as much about the outcome of your story.
Your deadline may not be completely obvious at the beginning of your story, but it’s always there in the background, driving the story forward and pushing the hero and villain to their inevitable showdown at the end.