Why do some stories seem to drag while others seem to end without you even realizing how much time has passed? It’s all based on the ticking time bomb theory of story telling.
Imagine a man locked in a room. That by itself might be a problem, but if he’s just locked in an office without access to a phone or any way to communicate with the outside world, nothing much will happen. The man can choose to find a way out or just sit around and wait for help to arrive. Sitting around is a sure way to bore your audience.
Now imagine this same man in the same room, but there’s a ticking time bomb ready to detonate in fifteen minutes. Now this man has no choice but to find a way out. He can’t wait for help to arrive because by that time, the ticking time bomb will have gone off. By knowing there’s a ticking time bomb threatening this man, every action this man makes is important and makes us wonder if he’ll escape with is life or not.
This idea of a ticking time bomb is what every story needs near the end to amp up the importance of your character’s actions and press your story towards its inevitable conclusion.
In the simplest level, pick any sports movie and most sports have a built-in ticking time bomb in that the game ends at a certain time and at that time, the winner will be determined. In “Rocky,” we know that Rocky must last a fixed number of rounds with the champion Apollo Creed. Now we’re left in suspense wondering if he’ll make it or not.
Outside of sports that have a built-in ticking time bomb, other movies use the inevitable threat of the villain achieving his goal, which could cause horrible consequences for the hero. In “Star Wars,” Luke has to blow up the Death Star before it can get into position and blow up the rebel base, killing Princess Leia in the process.
Even in a movie like “Transformers,” the ticking time bomb pushes the story along. If the hero fails to succeed, the evil Transformers will win and take over the planet.
The ticking time bomb comes directly from the villain’s pursuit of his own goal. In “The Terminator,” the Terminator relentlessly pursues Linda Hamilton in order to kill her. As the villain gets closer to achieving his goal, the hero must react to prevent this from happening.
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis has to stop the terrorists from winning because in the process, they’ll kill most of the hostages and take Bruce Willis’s wife along with them.
The ticking time bomb in every story forces the hero to react. He (or she) has no choice but to act. The hero can’t wait because waiting insures losing. The hero must react and this reaction inevitably forces the hero to confront the villain.
This inevitability is what’s necessary to force the hero and villain to battle to the death, and that’s what keeps our interest. We want to see the hero forced into fighting the villain.
Imagine “Star Wars” without the threat of the Death Star getting into position to blow up the rebel base. without this threat, Luke and the rest of the rebels could just run and hide. They don’t need to fight, but they do need to fight if there’s a ticking time bomb ready to kill them if they don’t react and react now.
If your screenplay feels flat or dull somehow, look for the ticking time bomb. That will force your hero to act and that will keep you audience interested at the same time.