The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

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.)

Watchin The Clock by Gus Kahn and Seymour Simons, Art by Helen Van Doorn Morgan

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

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 setup
Home 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.

Header illustration: Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

Muriel’s Wedding (1994) Film Study

Muriels Wedding poster

Mix of Genres: Comedy, drama, romance.

These days there’s a romance subgenre called ‘fake relationship’. These are romantic stories in which two people are forced into emotional closeness via proximity or circumstance. Muriel’s Wedding doesn’t quite fit this category of romance because it transcends these stories and becomes a story about female friendship instead. There is no girl-meets-boy happy ending, which brings it out of the romance genre.

Written and directed by Paul Hogan (no, not the Crocodile Dundee guy, and no, not everyone in Australia is called Paul Hogan). This one goes by P.J. Hogan, probably because of that Crocodile Dundee guy. This was Hogan’s breakout success, and was also the start of two stellar careers for Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette. That said, we’re here to talk about writing, for a change.

The Plot Structure Of Pretty Much Every Comedy

While some story experts say that there are 7 or 8 different structures for comedies, others say that this is the arch structure of pretty much every successful comedy recently:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences[ Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

The Plot Structure Of Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding is worth a rewatch not just because it’s funny in a bittersweet kind of way, but because it’s a great example of a comedy that follows exactly the structure described above.

Discontent: Muriel is unhappy with her life in general — she’s been unemployed for the last two years and spends a lot of time alone listening to ABBA.

Transgression with a mask: Muriel lies to Rhonda that her life is going great, that she’s going to marry a guy called Tim Simms and she has a successful career selling make up.

I'm a beauty consultant

Transgression without a mask: The mask is ripped off when Rhonda finds her wedding album under the bed and realises she spends a lot of time going around to bridal stores having her pictures taken. There is a confrontation in a wedding store when Rhonda finds her and Muriel is forced to tell her she just wants to change her life and that there was no Tim Simms.

Because who would want to marry me

Dealing with consequences: Still chasing the popular crowd, she basically ditches Rhonda for those other three bitches who are interested in being her bridesmaids now that she’s a bit famous. So she loses her best friend for a while and ends up completely alone when her husband also rejects her.

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story: Muriel has a revelation at her mother’s funeral when she realises her father is more interested in the fact that Bob Hawke sent condolences than about the fact his own wife is dead. Having herself chased after celebrity by marrying the South African swimmer, she confesses to her fake husband afterwards that she’s just the same.

Growth Without a Mask : The good-looking husband rewards this growth with a proper kiss. Muriel realises that what she wants in life is to live in Sydney with her best friend and make her own life so she pays her father back some of the money she stole and takes off.

The other thing Muriel’s Wedding has going for it are two catch phrases: “You’re terrible Muriel” really took off in Australia and NZ in the late nineties and everyone knew where it was from. It is said three times during the film by Muriel’s hopeless sister.

Relying on the magic storytelling number of three, the sister says this three times over the course of the film.

You're Terrible Muriel

The other is, “What a coincidence!” which is funny because the audience realises immediately that the father is having an affair, and so their meeting at the Chinese restaurant is no coincidence at all, but also comedies like this tend to be full of coincidences, so it’s a bit meta. (E.g. Rhonda finding the album exactly when Muriel is trying on the dresses, and so she confronts her inside the bridal store.)

STORY WORLD

The story begins, appropriately, in a small town on the Gold Coast, which is glittery and touristy and offers regular people a week or two of rich lifestyle once per year — the illusion of greatness for the average Joe. Muriel has to escape this setting and go to the big, anonymous city in order to really confront her genuine self. Hence, the setting is connected to the theme.

Welcome to Porpoise Spit

Sydney contrasts with Porpoise Spit — Sydney is the ‘New York of Australia’, the place aspirational young people from small NSW/QLD towns hope to go to make their own way and discover who they are as part of an anonymous crowd.

OTHER POINTS

Muriel’s Wedding is also successful for other reasons:

The main character, Muriel Heslop, is full of  plans and scams. Though we don’t like such characters in real life, we do love watching them on screen — shoplifting, lying, stealing money from her own parents… Muriel has it all.

Muriel is morally as well as psychologically weak, as noted aboveThe lying and cheating constitute the moral shortcoming; psychologically she has no confidence and is shy. She mistakes the shallow, pretty, high-school-popular girls for good people and tries to be like them even though they’re awful.

The story ends happily ever after, not as a typical romantic comedy would (with the man of her dreams), but with a good female friend, thereby still fulfilling the expectation of unification. (This sort of happy ending has been replicated in rom-coms numerous times since, with another example of female unification being Waitress (2007). In Juno we have a re-unification with a man, though without her baby, which subverts norms for the genre.

There are several set pieces which are memorable: If you watched this when it came out you probably still remember the first boyfriend unzipping the beanbag instead of Muriel’s clothing.

The film is spliced together with juxtapositions. That beanbag scene is swiftly followed by Rhonda’s collapse due to cancer. Hilarious scenes are immediately followed by serious ones. Within scenes, we have the juxtaposition of Muriel’s overjoyed face against her husband’s disgusted expression as she walks down the aisle. This leads to the bittersweet vibe. Muriel’s family is basically a tragic story.

Juxtapositions can be seen in the scenery, too: The bright, kitsch colours of the holiday destination against the griminess of Sydney, where bad things can happen (and do).

kitch setting muriel's wedding

Muriel's Wedding video shop

Since Muriel starts off as such a morally and psychologically weak person, her scope of change is large. The audience is given plenty of opportunity to see exactly how she has changed. She’s come full circle when she starts to pay her father back the money she stole and makes the moral decision to look after her friend (a good person) who is now in a wheelchair.

Comedies usually begin with someone who is out of a job, poor, broke, unemployable — a ‘loser’. By the end of the story, more often than not, they’re a ‘success’. The course of comedy is thus always an ascent to power.

— Howard Suber

I can change you'll still be you

Muriel’s duplicitous nature — common to all comedies of this kind, of course — is visually portrayed in numerous ways, not least by the rendition of the ABBA song, in which we see a ‘Betty and Veronica’ sort of difference between two female faces. Two different Muriels.

Abba dress up two personae

Mirrors are often used to convey the same thing, and sure enough…

Muriel mirror

Waitress Film Study (2007)

Waitress film poster

Waitress is a 2007 film with a tragic real life story behind the movie. It is also a good storytelling case study, as it changes mood part way through.

Though I don’t like Waitress nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)

First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:

  • They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
  • They were both released in 2007.
  • They are both indie productions.
  • They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
  • They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.

As far as feminist messages go, Juno does a better job. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:

  • Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
  • Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
  • Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
  • Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
  • Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.

Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.

Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…

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Dawn is played by Adrienne Shelley

Setting

This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.

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Symbolism

Pie Waitress Movie

The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WAITRESS

Shortcoming/Need

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Psychological Shortcoming: Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”

Moral Shortcoming: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral shortcoming (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.

As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.

Dehttps://www.slaphappylarry.com/desire-story-structure-character/sire

In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.

Opponent

Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.

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Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)

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Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!

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Plan

The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).

Big Struggle

For Jenna, the big struggle is the birth. This leads to the anagnorisis. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil. 

Anagnorisis

Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.

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New Situation

When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.

waitress allies

The Blow-in Saviour Trope

Mary Poppins

Blow-in Saviour describes a character who travels from place to place fixing the joint, or spreading joy, then moving on. We assume the cycle will continue.

Blow-in Saviour characters are found mainly in Westerns, detective stories and comedies. They are also found in children’s stories. Sometimes the Blow-in Saviours of children’s stories are children, sometimes they are adults. As I’ve noted before, characters in children’s stories are not always rounded to the point that they are treating others wrongly in some way. This is less true of contemporary adults’ stories.

Blow-in Saviours tend to turn up with a community is in trouble. (But not always.) Mary Poppins turns up when a household is in trouble. (Middle grade fiction is about the household more than about the community). They fix the problems, then move on.

The Blow-in Saviour trope is a benevolent outworking of the walking the Earth’ trope.

EXAMPLES OF THE BLOW-IN SAVIOUR TROPE

  • Into The Wild — Chris McCandless goes from place to place offering (pseudo-) wisdom and seeming to improve other people’s lives, until his philosophies turn in on himself and lead to his own downfall.
  • Tinkerbell of Peter and Wendy
  • Snufkin from The Moomins is similar. He plays a harmonica wherever he goes, distributing the joy of music.
  • Crocodile Dundee (Australian film) — comedy, adventure
  • Red Dog is another Australian film — in a heartwarming story, a red dog goes from place to place spreading joy.
  • True Grit — anti-Western, adventure
  • Amélie (film) — French comedy romance — Blow-in Saviour comedies are popular in France for some reason
  • Chocolat (book and film) — drama, romance
  • Good Morning, Vietnam (film) — biography, comedy, drama
  • Mary Poppins (family musical based on a series of books by P.L. Travers) — children’s book — comedy, fantasy, Nanny Story
  • Shane (classic Western) — about the only non-ironic Western movie made since the world wars — includes drama and romance
  • Anne Of Green Gables — Anne starts off as a scattered character who causes chaos wherever she goes despite her best efforts. But her character arc turns her into a Blow-in Saviour, which starts the night she saves the Barry girl by knowing what to do for her illness. After she grows up, Anne doesn’t leave Avonlea for good, she is back and forth, and tends to win crotchety people over so long as they are basically good in the first place.
  • Wanda from The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is wise and humble beyond her years. She visits a school temporarily, changes the social structure for the better, teaches kindness then moves on.
  • Jack Reacher goes from town to town solving mysteries.
  • Xena Warrior Princess and her sidekick Gabrielle go from place to place fighting warlords. The backstory is that Xena is atoning for her past as the worst warlord of them all.
  • Superheroes have Blow-in Saviour attributes. They seem drawn to saving everyone and will travel far and wide to do so.
  • Santa — the ultimate Blow-in Saviour!
  • Miss Rumphius is a bit of a Blow-in Saviour character, walking from place to place spreading flower seeds, beautifying the area.

Related: Angelic Tropes at TV Tropes

THE BLOW-IN DASTARD TROPE

An inversion of this trope can be found in less optimistic, borderline misanthropic stories. Annie Proulx has upended the Blow-in Dastard trope in several of her stories, notably “Heart Songs” and in “Negatives“, both from the Heart Songs collection. Well-heeled outsiders enter a poor, rural community, wreak havoc then move on, only to do the same to the next town, we deduce.

In children’s literature we have Wolf Comes To Town! by Denis Manton and similar stories in which a villain goes from place to place wreaking havoc. Classic fairytales tend to end with the goodies defeating the baddies, but new re-visionings sometimes eschew the happy ending.

When Nellie Bertram joins The (American) Office cast, inserting herself as boss, she describes herself as their blow-in saviour by comparing herself to Tinkerbell (a genuine Blow-in Saviour). In doing so, she describes the Blow-in Saviour perfectly:

Jim: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t know if you can even give raises.
Nellie: Jim, have you ever heard of a character named Tinkerbell?
Jim: Yes.
Nellie: I’m Tinkerbell.
Jim: No.
Nellie: Mm-hm. I’m a magical fairy who floated into your office to bring a little bit of magic into your lives, to give you all raises.
Stanley: And we are grateful.
Nellie: But here’s the thing about Tinkerbell, Jim. Everyone has to believe in her or she doesn’t exist.
Jim: She dies.

Office Quotes, Season 8, Episode 19

But Nellie is full of bluff and bluster, a charlatan and a terrible boss. From the outset she is presented as a Blow-in Dastard instead. This works best when the audience understands what she is trying to do, which is why having her explain this is effective.