The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

 

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

 

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setupHome by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

 

 

Continuous Narrative Art In Picture Books

A continuous narrative is a type of visual story that illustrates multiple scenes of a narrative within a single frame.

Multiple actions and scenes are portrayed in a single visual field without any dividers. The sequence of events within the narrative is defined through the reuse of the main character or characters.

Continuous narrative emphasises the change in movement and state of the repeating characters as indicators of scene or phase changes in the narrative.

There are 7 main categories of narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist makes use of frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative but without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must know a story before you can understand synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with the story it tells. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its position on the page. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.

 

Continuous narrative art is pretty much exactly the same as sequential narrative art except minus the frames that help the viewer to know where one phase ends and the next begins.

Trajan's Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars
Trajan’s Column, depicting one event: The Dacian Wars
Continuous narrative in The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach

Marla Frazee makes a lot of use of continuous narrative. For example Mrs. Biddlebox (There’s an image of the thumbnail sketches for this book on Frazee’s webpage.)

from Boot and Shoe
from Boot and Shoe

Jan Ormerod is also a fan of continuous narrative in her illustrations. See Sunshine, Moonlight, Putting Mummy to Bed. Below Ormerod uses continuous narrative to depict a child getting undressed and dressed. I make use of this same technique to show a child getting ready for bed, but in an interactive picture book app, Midnight Feast.

Sun and Moon continuous narrative
Getting dressed scene in Sunshine

breakfast scene from Sunshine

Falling asleep Sunshine

Sunshine continuous narrative

Ian Falconer uses continuous narrative in his Olivia the pig stories. Here, Olivia the pig waits impatiently for her mother to sew her a different colored soccer shirt in Olivia and the Missing Toy. Not seen here is the bit where she walks off, bored.

Olivia waited and waited and waited

The double spread below is from Olivia and the Fairy Princesses. Continuous narrative is especially effective in stories about a hyperactive little person (or animal-person stand-in) because the multiple images convey a sense of movement.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

The cat drinking milk in Wanda Gag’s  Millions of Cats is an example of continuous narrative because the fall of the hill forms a clear temporal guide.

cats drinking milk
the double spread
cats drinking milk close up 2
a better quality image
cats drinking millk close up
a closer look

The road in Virginia Lee Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow provides a temporal guide. So this is an example of continuous narrative art.

katy-and-the-big-snow-hero

If this is were the same postman it would be an example of continuous art. But since it’s meant to be seven (identical looking) postmen, it’s not. It’s panoptic.
At first glance this looks like an example of continuous art but the title tells us there really are five separate firemen.

The following scene is from Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley.

Diary of a Wombat battle with bush

Continuous narrative is not just used in ‘art’. Here’s an image from the Stihl home page, presumably to convey the idea that if you buy the Stihl tools you can do all of these tasks in a fraction of the usual time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had that many clones of yourself working in the yard whenever big jobs needed to be done?

Warning Sign, Coober Pedy, Outback, South Australia, Australia

 

Chekhov’s Gun and Interactive Stories

Any writer will have heard the following advice from Anton Chekov:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I’m reminded of this quotation when reading a different kind of advice: Tips for what to do and what not to do, for those of us producing interactive content for children. In The Art and Science of the Children’s eBook, Dr. Warren Buckleitner advises something similar to Chekhov:

balloon pop app interactivity

 

And of course, I think of a page in our own app, Midnight Feast, which features a balloon. Incidentally, the balloon cannot be popped. Nor can the guitar be strummed. The books on the shelf cannot be read. The rug cannot be vacuumed.

The Balloon In Midnight Feast App

I do remember that ‘balloon pops on touch’ was a part of our initial plans for Midnight Feast. Why did we plan it that way? For exactly the reason Buckleitner explains above. But as the story took shape, it made more sense thematically and symbolically, that the interactive part of this page shouldn’t be about balloons popping — which more naturally symbolises the ‘bursting of hopes and dreams’ (this comes later in the story) — but rather this scene became about ‘enclosure’. Roya is locked inside a small house, and so the nesting of the dolls on top of the nested tables are something I wanted the reader to contemplate. So we made those interactive instead. If you touch the dolls they jump inside each other. I coloured them luridly to suggest they might be a hotspot.

The balloon remains as part of the interior decoration, because this is a father trying to create a party atmosphere for his daughter. I justified it at the time as an ironic counterpoint to the main character’s emotions — the balloon has a big smiley face on it, but is upside down, to match Roya’s lacklustre expression.

Should the balloon be pop-able, nonetheless?

The creation of interactive stories is rife with pitfalls, and full of contradictory advice. Counter advice from the very same document cautions against ‘sprinkling an app with hotspots’ that do not support the story:

Sprinkled With Hotspots

Why does the reader think that by touching a balloon it must pop? This expectation does not come from real life, because a balloon cannot be burst simply by touching it. A balloon may burst if poked with something sharp, granted, but I would argue that the reader expectation for popping balloons on screen comes not from any real-world analogue but from prior touchscreen experience. Namely, from games.

It is true, however, that when the user expects functionality and doesn’t get it, there is a micro-disappointment. This leads to several more philosophical questions:

  • To what extent should creators of interactive books cater to the easily won thrills which follow the user from gaming-world?
  • To what extent should we expect readers to ‘work’ for meaning? (By ‘work’, I mean ‘think’ — ‘Why is this part of the screen responsive, but not this one?’)
  • When creating artwork for interactive stories, is it better to ‘leave out the balloon’ altogether, if the user expects it to pop? To what extent do we cater to this?
  • And which parts of a fictional environment will the user expect to be interactive anyhow? Might this change over time?
  • Must the user know exactly what to expect upon first reading, or second? Or should interactive books open themselves up slowly, upon subsequent readings? Will users even read something twice if they must tap without reward?
  • Are there ways artists can signal unobtrusively to the reader which elements are hotspots and which are not, perhaps with colour? If I had made the balloon the same hue as the wallpaper, perhaps no one would think to tap it? Then again, would they even notice it?

The user expects the balloon to pop because they have popped many digital balloons on touchscreens before. As end users continue to interact with touch screens, and as touch screens become ever more integrated into our daily lives, no doubt user expectations will evolve. The question is, in which direction? And who is driving the evolution? Developers, of course. The more pop-able balloons that arrive in the touchscreen world, the more balloons will exist to be popped.

 

First Person Point Of View In Picturebooks and Film

Film School Rejects shared a short film called Gumshoe, which is four minutes shot from a first person point of view. As FSR note:

First person POV can be tricky to pull off because of how limiting the field of view is. It’s the same thing with found footage, but even without the shaky cam (or at least a less shaky cam), it can be disorienting and leave an audience frustrated by the loss of control. When it’s done well, it can be very cool. Still a gimmick, but an entrancing one.

See The World Through A Detective’s Eyes In This Short Noir Film

In the noir film, the first person point of view serves several purposes and one of those purposes is to add a comic (as well as comical) tone. The ‘kapow’ type voiceovers add to this humorous tone. A woman’s legs viewed from the top-down quash any real attempt at the familiar ‘sexy pose’.

FIRST PERSON POV IN PICTUREBOOKS

What roles might this POV play in picturebooks?

I have made use of it — though not across an entire work — in Midnight Feast, in which the reader views the hallway from the young protagonist’s point of view. The point of view soon shifts to one of ‘reader’ because a touch on the screen sees the protagonist in front of the reader, pressed against the wall, trying not to be seen.

page03_a

A shifting point of view adds variety to a picturebook, which is especially necessary in a story like Midnight Feast, in which the action takes place entirely inside one small apartment and stairwell. But even in cases where there are plenty of beautiful settings, an illustration from first person point of view can aid reader identification with the protagonist, and so I’m making use of it again in Hilda Bewildered. Below is a screenshot for page 22:

HB_page22_taxi-driver-agrees06

In this case I included the hand of the main character. The green ring is significant to the plot, and I also needed the speech bubble to be coming from somewhere (even if it is just a hand). Technically, at that angle, a passenger in the back seat of a car would not see the taxi driver’s eyes but rather his head (I only know this because I worked from a reference photo) but I have illustrated the driver’s rather menacing eyes and I’ve made sure they are looking straight at the reader. In conjunction with the first person point of view, I hope that when the reader first turns onto the page, that those eyes will heighten the suspense. Where is Hilda going? Who with? What’s going to happen when they get there? All of this works better if readers can put themselves into the position of the main character.