A ticking clock element, or any deadline in your story, is guaranteed to boost suspense and momentum—or so you’d think. Yet this device doesn’t work for every situation. Just look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi versus The Commuter.
Yes, they’re in different genres, but both of these current films impose a deadline on the characters to help set a plot’s pace and heighten the urgency. Unfortunately, this serves only part of the story in The Last Jedi. By contrast, The Commuter’s deadline results in a clever second act that unfolds nearly in real time.
Any kind of ticking clock (and we mean that figuratively) provides an external antagonist that solidifies the stakes and focuses your story, says script consultant Danny Manus, writing in Script magazine,
“You can use that time frame to help structure your story and your characters’ arc. The time clock element is what compels them to seek out their goal or objective.”
A time element doesn’t have to be a clock, although many a hero has diffused a bomb with a convenient digital readout. It can be a day where the protagonist unravels an injustice while weighing a new job offer (The Paper); marrying in three days to avoid being deported (The Proposal); solving a crime during a two-day furlough (48 Hours); becoming dad material before the baby’s due (Nine Months) … you get the idea. Sometimes films add more than one. Aliens first gave our stranded heroes weeks until they could expect a rescue party, then slashed their survival time to hours before a damaged reactor exploded their hiding spot.
Matching your action against this time frame in a natural way keeps the story clear and consistent. “If you set up that your character has eight hours to complete a task, don’t forget about that for the first seven hours,” Manus notes.
The timing also should feel natural to your concept and action, never forced, Manus says. Character-focused dramas don’t have them, and not all thrillers do, either. “Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Usual Suspects, Forrest Gump—they don’t really use time clocks to progress the story, and they turned out just fine.”
The Last Jedi establishes a time clock from the opening moments with the Resistance’s fleet running low on fuel and unable to speed away from the First Order.
(Mild spoilers follow!)
Poe (Oscar Isaac) doesn’t trust that Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) has this situation well in hand, so after consulting Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), he sends Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance mechanic, on a secret mission to the casino world of Canto Bight. There, the two are supposed to find a codebreaker who can block the First Order’s computers, allowing the fleet to jump to hyperspace safely.
We all know when we need to fill up a gas tank, so we feel the pressure for this part of the story to occur quickly. But Finn, Rose, and BB-8 seem to spend several hours on Canto Bight while the First Order’s pursuit comes across like a slow-speed chase in space.
The larger problem, at least for me, is that the pace of the fleet’s storyline didn’t match the quieter, more introspective plot on Ach-To: the island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been hiding since his former student, Ben Solo, became Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Relationships take time. The Star Wars films have a knack for creating fast friendships while characters flee a common enemy. This one falters as Rey (Daisy Ridley) faces a lot of opposition during the hours (days?) that the fleet runs on fumes. She must convince Luke to return to the Resistance with her and aid his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), then train her in using her Force powers. Meanwhile, she and Kylo discover that they can chat through the Force, leading to some sort of kinship and her deciding to visit Kylo to turn him back toward the light.
Ridley and Driver give affecting performances, and their lightsaber fight against a common enemy is a highlight—but I never really bought into this as a choice for Rey’s character. The Last Jedi occurs right after the events of The Force Awakens, where Rey has (a) been Kylo’s prisoner and fought his torture; (b) saw Kylo seriously injure her friend Finn; and (c) watched him kill Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his own father. That’s a lot to process, let alone forgive, during such a short time span.
Maybe time moves at a different rate in the Star Wars universe, but other films in this saga haven’t felt quite so dissonant. The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, has a fuzzier time frame but more organic relationships. We don’t know how long Luke trained to be a Jedi on Dagobah, but his conflict with Jedi Master Yoda felt sincere. His training also was long enough for the sparks between Han and Leia to blossom into romance while Darth Vader hired bounty hunters in pursuit. By the time all these story threads converged in Cloud City, none felt shortchanged.
The Commuter is set a galaxy away in present-day New York, with a story that seems a lot less complicated at first. Mike (Liam Neeson), a retired cop turned insurance salesman, is roped into helping a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) find a certain passenger on a commuter train before the last stop. But the film spirals into one puzzle and dead end after another as Mike tries to figure out why this person is so important and get help without getting himself killed.
Mike does reach out to a cop buddy (Patrick Wilson) by phone, and there are threats against his family to keep him on the mystery woman’s mission, but the film doesn’t cut away from the focus of the train ride. This causes Neeson to pace the aisles a lot, but part of the fun of the story is watching Mike think on his feet and use whatever he has at his disposal.
Consider adding a time element to your screenplay whenever you need to elevate the concept, the tension, or a character’s motivation. Just be sure that it works overall with the natural rhythms of your story.
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist who now dives into fictional mayhem as an author (Quicklet on The Closer: Season 1), essayist, film critic, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She also writes for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, ScreenCraft, Hazlitt, Signature, and the blog for Final Draft, the top-rated screenwriting software used by the filmmaking industry. A member of Screenwriters of Tomorrow, she’s collaborated on short films and features, and she’s affiliated with the Tampa Bay Film Society. She lives in Florida. Find her online at valeriekalfrin.com.