The Top Trick for Heightening Story Suspense

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… (Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone (1961), directed by J. Lee Thompson, produced by Columbia Pictures.)

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. (Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone (1961), directed by J. Lee Thompson, produced by Columbia Pictures.)

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. Okay, I have GOT to learn how to do all this cool stuff you’re able to do–podcast, videos, storytelling–wow!

  2. I actually have the opposite problem. I have such trouble making stories last longer than a few days, to make them more realistic. Instead all this character development is crammed into two or three days and it seems rushed.

    But you know, of all the problems to throw at my characters, I never would have thought of moving the deadline up. So simple, and yet so effective.

    Great post, as always!

  3. So my heart started to pump while watching this. Now I have to watch the movie!

  4. @Sharon: It’s actually pretty easy (hence my ability to do it!). I’d be happy to help if you have any questions.

    @Jenn: You make a valid point. Too often, in their attempt to make their stories fast and gripping, authors and filmmakers try to make things happen in an unbelievably short amount of time (chick flicks, I’m looking at you). But the good news is that you can jimmy your narrative around, so that it features a longer timeline and still feels fast. In most instances, all you need to do is indicate that time has passed, without showing the extra days in which nothing happens.

    @Sandra: It’s a classic. Definitely worth watching!

  5. I’m dating myself here but in the junior high gym the school showed “The Guns of Navarone” when I was in 8th grade. Great movie then and now.

    I often use the method of moving time in chunks of days such as the dialogue references doing something on Friday and the next paragraph is “That Friday . . .” The caution is to keep up with where you are in the week while writing.

  6. Great idea! I think too often beginning novelists struggle with creating enough conflict and tension… Making things too easy on characters backfires. This is a great way to help bring back a little of that tension!

  7. @Sally: A lot of writers fail to realize they don’t have to show every moment of time passing. If nothing’s going on in the story, there’s no reason to show it. Just skip ahead, and indicate in a few words how many hours/days/months have passed.

    @Wendy: Never make things easy on the characters. Novelists have to be a brutal bunch!

  8. Very timely post for me. I realized that my WIP, which has an embedded ticking clock (save an unborn queen’s life, so she’s born when she’s supposed to enter the world) actually started too soon. It’s a time travel story, so I had a choice of when to have my MC show up on the scene.

    By accelerating the ticking clock (she only has 2 weeks now, instead of 2 months to learn to be a 16th century girl…even that is cut in half when her benefactor is recalled to the royal court earlier than expected). Story moves much faster now…tension is back and she’s in a lot of trouble!

    Thanks, K.M….great post!

  9. Brilliant! Sounds like you’ve got this ticking clock thing nailed.

  10. I’ve never seen “The Guns of Navarone,” but while shopping in a thrift store, I did find another movie you once referenced. “Wallace & Gromit, the Curse of the Were Rabbit.” 😛 Not sure it applies to your vlog though. 😀

  11. If you like suspense movies and/or WWII movies, Guns of Navarone is definitely worth seeing.

    You probably heard me mention my woes of trying to write battle scenes to the spunky theme from Curse of the Were Rabbit‘s soundtrack. Curse isn’t my favorite Wallace & Gromit film, but it’s got some good moments.

  12. Ah. That may be. I’m old. I forget things. 😉

    I’ll try to find Guns. I only have an antennae for TV and no place to rent movies where I live. But I’ll see if I can find a copy.

  13. I love the guns of… Noodleville. Too tired to remember how to spell it. Although- I could just scroll to the top of your post, couldn’t I? Scrolling… Navarone. Ah- simpler than I thought. 😀 I love that movie- and I’m using your advice. Looking at it in my head- it adds a whole new level of excitement to my current story. Thanks!

  14. You know… I had to doublecheck the spelling almost every time I wrote it!

  15. While I’ve never seen the movie you used as an example, I loved the vlog! You gave me a few new ideas for my WIP, so thanks 🙂

    Though, I have to admit, with my latest story I’ve had the opposite problem. I’ve had to ADD a little more time to the story, because it was happening too fast, and scale back on the conflict, because I was overdoing it.

    I loved what you said to Jenn about stories happening too fast… “Chick flicks, I’m looking at you!” Even though I like watching chick flicks, that made me laugh because it’s so true. I watched a movie yesterday where the hero and heroine met, fell in love, and got married within 2 days. I was like, oh my gosh, he could be a murderer for all you know! LOL 🙂

    And to make a long comment even longer (sorry!) I just have to say I love your vlogs. I watch them on my iPod touch. They make my day 🙂

  16. Thanks so much for watching! You’re extraordinarily right about tension and conflict and short timelines being easy to overdo. Like everything in fiction, pacing is very much about balance. Conflict loses its oomph, if the story has to no down time to contrast with it.

  17. I really liked your video and that’s a great idea. I’m in the process of editing and I think I’ll try that.

  18. I hope it comes in handy. Have fun editing!

  19. I have a petition… would it be possible to make your video posts available in text as well, or at least your notes/main points from the video? I certainly understand if this would be too time-consuming, but if it’s not too much trouble I would greatly appreciate it.



  20. I’m actually considering including the transcription in a weekly e-letter – which is still in the conception stage. The fact that you’ve mentioned it makes me all that much more inclined.

  21. Another great one. Yes! Change the time, why didn’t I think of that? Fabulous advice & awesome vlog ;o)

  22. It’s surprising how easy it is to overlook a little, but important, item like time. But it can make all the difference!

  23. Anonymous says

    Thanks, Mrs. Weiland; if you did start a e-letter I would certainly look into that as your video material looks very useful but I can not easily watch them.


  24. Just curious: Why do you find them difficult to watch?

  25. 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.


  26. 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!

  27. 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

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

  29. 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

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

  31. 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.

  32. 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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