Written by JJ Barnes
Time-locks are best to use in your story when you’ve established who your Protagonist and Antagonist are, you’ve pitted them against each other, but your story lacks pressure and haste. You want to ramp up the tension and manipulate the circumstances surrounding your characters, so the story is more exciting. Time-locks gives your story energy, and is what tells your audience and your characters, that you’re headed for the climax.
Sports movies are a really good place to find examples of a time-lock in story. The big final match is looming at the end of the story, so everything the characters do is with an awareness that that game will be the climax. Think of Rocky’s big final fight, the big game at the end of Dodgeball, and the last stage of the cheerleading competition in Bring It On.
Examples of Time-Locks
If you’re writing a book or film that doesn’t have a built in time-lock, you can add it to your story by forcing your characters into a situation where they have to get something completed by a certain time.
For instance, in Lilly Prospero and the Magic Rabbit, I wrote a time-lock. With as few spoilers as possible, Lilly is studying at a special facility and hears about a “Final Gathering”. She then has to work out if that is a good thing or a bad thing, who she can trust and work with, and how to control her magical power before it happens. It adds pressure on the character and builds towards the climax with an energy that might not otherwise be there.
Another excellent example you can watch and learn from is from Season 5 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The Big Bad in Season 5 is Glory, a God from a Hell dimension who comes to Earth and needs to find a mystical key that will bleed the Hell dimension into ours.
Buffy and her friends find out there is a specific time and place where Glory can do this spell, and use the key, and that puts pressure on them to stop her quickly, and on Glory to find the key in time to do the spell in time. As time gets closer, it ramps up the tension and drama of the story, which is excellent for the audience to witness.
How to Add a Time-Lock
When you’re writing your story, if you feel like you need to add tension and drama and escalation to your story, time-locks are a perfect way of doing it. It is both more entertaining and easier to steer your story towards the climax when the tension is ramping up.
The time-lock could be something as dramatic as Hell bleeding onto Earth, or as simple as an opportunity is coming up that won’t last forever. But the application of this time-lock factor increases motivation, and raises the stakes, for everybody involved immediately.
Time-locks are best introduced as a mid-point turning point, or at the end of act two as you charge towards the climax. A sports or competition movie tends to have the time-lock in place from the very beginning, but usually it would be added later as another layer of pressure after the story is already underway.
Ultimately, think of your time-lock as your Protagonist finding out that if they don’t succeed now, they can never succeed, and dealing with those consequences.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
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