The Top Trick for Heightening Story Suspense

Your Story's Ticking Clock

Giving your characters a deadline—and suitably disagreeable consequences if they fail to meet it—ups the ante and keeps readers glued to your story suspense. Even better, it’s a super-easy trick to apply to your story!

Your hero’s goal is what shapes your story. Without something he needs or wants, your hero just an interesting personality at best. But even if your hero has a strong goal, readers are likely to lose interest if your character has all the time in the world to achieve that goal.

How to Use a Ticking Clock to Heighten Your Story Suspense

The classic World War II movie The Guns of Navarone, directed by J. Lee Thompson, presents a masterful use of the ticking clock.

The heroes are on a suicide mission to destroy two huge guns in a German fortress. From the very beginning, they’re on tight schedule. If they don’t blow up the guns in a just a few days, hundreds of men stranded on the island of Kyros and everyone in the ships sent to rescue them will be killed.

Gregory Peck Guns of Navarone

As if a near-impossible World War II mission into Nazi-held territory was enough to raise the story suspense…

You’d think that would be tension enough, but scriptwriter Carl Foreman took things one step further.

Halfway into their mission, with a wounded man on their hands and half their supplies destroyed, the team gets word the deadline has been moved up a full day. Their already suicidal mission now looks completely impossible.

Guns of Navarone Gregory Peck Anthony Quayle

…the stakes jump even higher when the commanding officer is wounded, the supplies are destroyed, and the mission deadline is moved up a full 24 hours. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Viewers are on the edge of their seats—and right in the palm of the filmmakers’ hands!

The Easiest Story Suspense Trick of All: Shorten Your Timeline

Putting a time limit on your character’s goals—whether that goal is to destroy an enemy base or just to buy groceries—brings a whole new level of tension to your story.

If your story takes place over a course of weeks, try shortening the timeline to days—and watch that ticking clock energize both your characters and your readers!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is there a ticking clock shortening your timeline—and how is it affecting your story suspense? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Anonymous says

    Well, firstly, I am often on my laptop, which does not always run videos very smoothly. Secondly I am seldom alone in a room and I generally feel embarrassed playing a video with others around. Third, I just prefer reading an article to watching it, perhaps because I can go at my own pace.

    Those are all rather minor and reasons and it is quite selfish of me to ask you to complicate your life in order to accommodate my inane preferences. 🙂 Thanks for at least contemplating the idea.


  2. Thanks for explaining. 🙂 I’m always interested in hearing how people react to the different media I use and which they prefer. It will be a few months yet before I’m able to get rolling on the e-letter idea, but stay tuned!

  3. that’s a great video!
    Timing is a matter of pacing, I’ve always found. But no matter what sort of timeframe your story happens in, making your reader devote their time to your story is the key

  4. Yes, definitely all about pacing. This is just a simple trick to help us figure out how to shorten timelines to increase the tension.

  5. My “sagas” are over many many years… so each one is the span of about 10 years or so, but pacing is still so important, if a bit more difficult to do.

    the Sweetie novel is over a summer, and boy was that less cumbersome to write! so much less to keep track of! But again, that pacing . . .

    Love the videos

  6. I don’t think short timelines are important – just short deadlines, and deadlines can be any number of things, small and large.

  7. TJ Harrell says

    The movie Inception does an excellent job at providing a ticking clock, as strange as it is that multiple perceptions of time exist on the different layers, and they’re all ticking (hope you can keep track of it!). I find it to be one of the movie’s very strong aspects.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. It’s also an awesome example of how to keep upping the stakes exponentially, the tighter the timeline gets.

  8. KM, have you seen the TV show Dark Matter? It’s a pretty typical Canadian sci-fi show in terms of plot and characters (and the pilot starts off quite slowly, as a lot of pilots do), but after the first episode it does a masterful job of setting up and then steadily escalating tension throughout every episode. I’d recommend a watch to people interested in narrative–I can’t watch it with my spouse without wanting to interrupt to explain “Now THAT is tension! This is how you do it!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t! But I like the title. 🙂 I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

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