I’ve been enjoying a few of my favorite films recently and noticed a common pattern. The use of time as a controlling element. When we build worlds and stories as author we are conscious of the passage of time, yet I wonder how often we are intentional about using time to keep our readers engaged through that critical arc from middle build through final climax.
Let’s look at a couple of films, admittedly by my favorite director Christopher Nolan, for the use of time as a controlling element in storytelling.
I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but Nolan and team once again wove time elements into their story in apparent and subtle ways. The historical context of Dunkirk is one of time: a race to save the British army before the Nazi forces overrun the beaches. Civilian mariners are mobilized to rescue the beleaguered British troopers. Nolan weaves three main story lines together, with interesting overlaps and points of view overlaid one upon another. Each storyline begins with a time marker: 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week. It took us a little bit to figure out what they meant, but once we solved it, it fit the style of storytelling very well.
Put it into practice: Be explicit when guiding your readers through multiple storylines that occur over disparate timelines. Dates and times as chapter introductions are one method to try in writing.
I’ll assume you’ve seen this, so consider the spoiler alert given. This movie is built upon interpretation of time (almost literally). Several countdown events all take place, some overlapping, some as setup and some to drive the arc. Mankind is dying due to worldwide crop blight, and the end is near. Once the mission launches, the crew are driven by a need to complete their exploration within certain time constraints. Due to relativity, the main characters become decoupled from one another and we see each storyline progress independently yet with clear connections. Individual scenes, especially the drop to the waterworld (including metronome), are races against time and with severe temporal impacts.
Put it into practice: This seems obvious, but is your storyline driven by a time-based crisis? End of the world? Race against time? Most blockbusters come down right to the wire, so work backwards from how your plot resolves and what needs to take place before the 11th hour.
A dream within a dream. Each time the dreamer opens another dream, time speeds up and compounds, so that minutes become hours, hours become years. We learn the protagonist, Cobb, has in fact lived an entire life within the dream before escaping. Once they set their plan into motion, it’s a race to complete the job before their flight lands in Los Angeles, with life or death consequences for Cobb. The final scenes are all a spiral through competing timeframes as each dream collapses on one another.
Put it into practice: A common practice is to weave a character’s backstory through stand-alone chapters or interludes. Brandon Sanderson does this brilliantly in his Stormlight Archives among others. Consider this as a method of revealing key background about your characters using story (and giving yourself another creative outlet in a different plotline and setting).
While each movie in the series has temporal elements, I especially like the final installment The Dark Knight Rises. Once again, we have a race against time. Bruce Wayne must overcome his self-doubt, restore his body, and return to Gotham before it’s too late. With a city-destroyer nuclear weapon gone mobile and rogue, we learn Batman’s plan is to remove the hazard from the city as the clock races down.
Put it into practice: Make clear and credible consequences for your story and characters if they fail to achieve their mission. We all want Sally and Johnny to find love, but what is driving them together? A pending wedding? A terminal illness? A big job change? What will drive your characters towards (or away) from their desires?
What are some of your favorite countdowns in the movies or books? I’d love for you to share in the comments below!