THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

OUT OF TIME!


A few days ago on a message board a fellow screenwriter admitted that she had no problems at all with deadlines on an assignment, but when trying to write a spec script she could never get herself to work on it. She would find all kinds of other things to do instead, because it didn't matter when she finished the script - there was no hard deadline looming over her, forcing her to work. This is a common problem with screenwriters - getting anything done when you don't have a deadline. And not just a problem with screenwriters, ask any wife who has given her husband a "honeydo list" how fast things get crossed off that list. The same person who can work around the clock to meet some crazy deadline at work has trouble doing the simplest of tasks when there is no deadline.

And characters are no different.

A protagonist who has a problem and the rest of their life to solve it will put it off until the doctor gives them two weeks to live. And why shouldn't they? What is the incentive to solve the problem now? Which is why *deadlines* and *consequences* are important in any screenplay. Without a deadline and consequences in a rom-com, Hugh Grant wouldn't have to race anywhere at the end of the movie.

A Ticking Clock is usually based on a DEADLINE - a certain exact time when something awful is going to take place. The cliche is the ticking time bomb that our heroes are trying to find... then disarm. But deadlines don't always have to be so exact - in MAGNOLIA Jason Robard's failing health is a ticking clock - will Tom Cruise get over himself and go visit his father before it's too late? The sooner the audience knows the deadline, the sooner the suspense begins.

COUNTDOWNS & CONSEQUENCES

Though the remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 lacks much of the charm of the original, it makes up for it with a series of great countdowns - a rapidly approaching deadline where the audience is made aware of exactly how much time is left on the clock. A mysterious guy named Ryder (John Travolta - hamming it up) and his crew have hijacked the Pelham subway train in New York City. Though he can't take the hijacked subway train to Cuba, he can take it to an isolated piece of track where his crew can defend the train, and make a list of demands. He radios the dispatcher, Garber (Denzel Washington) tells him he has taken the Pelham train and gives the City of New York exactly one hour to get him $10 million.

Okay, we have our big ticking clock for the entire movie - 60 minutes and counting down to 0. But what are the consequences?

Ryder tells Garber that if he does not have the $10 million in one hour, he will kill one hostage every minute until he gets the money.

SPOILERS!

That gives us consequences and an additional series of countdowns. Once the 60 minutes are up, we have a series of 60 second countdowns... with someone being killed as consequences for *each* 60 second countdown. We now have some hard deadlines that our protagonist must meet, or there are consequences. That presses the protagonist in to action - they can't just wait until Ryder gets hungry and gives up, they must do something NOW to prevent the loss of innocent lives.

Of course, our protagonist Garber is just a dispatcher, not a hostage negotiator. So when the best NYPD hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) shows up, they send Garber home and Camonetti takes over... but Ryder refuses to talk to Camonetti! He gives them 60 seconds to get Garber back on the radio or he will kill the Motorman. Now, as Ryder counts down from 60, they race through the building looking for Garber, and finally find him outside the building on his way home! They grab him and rush him back to the radio... with Ryder counting down... and are not fast enough. Ryder kills the Motorman! Countdown and consequences.

By the time the Mayor (James Gandolfini) starts setting into motion the process of getting the $10 million in cash and delivering it, in wheelbarrows if necessary, to Ryder, we are down to 39 minutes left on the clock... and Ryder is very good about counting down the time until he starts killing the hostages one-by-one.

While we have this 60 minute big clock countdown going on, there are several more small countdowns spread out throughout the screenplay.

Garber has a dark backstory - he was demoted to dispatcher because he is under investigation for taking a bribe. Ryder grabs one of the hostages, a skateboarding kid, and gives Garber to the count of 5 to admit that he actually took the bribe. "5, 4, 3, 2..." And Garber admits to taking the bribe - a felony. Now the police race the clock to investigate *Garber* - what if he's Ryder's inside man? Can the City of New York trust a man who just confessed to a felony?

Once the $10 million in cash is assembled, they have to drive cross-town against the clock to deliver it to Ryder. Another countdown of sorts - this one is all about *distance*. Can they get the money across town in time?

One of Ryder's team, Ramos (the always great Luis Guzman), is an ex-NYC Transit employee... and the police race the clock to find information on him, and how he might be connected to Ryder, before Ryder calls Garber again. This is a race against time *without* a fixed time. We know that Ryder will eventually call Garber again, but we do not know when. So they must race against time - without knowing how much time. Still a deadline, just an unusual one. You don't always need that big red LED timer on a ticking bomb to create suspense - you can do it *without* a hard deadline.

Meanwhile, the money car gets into a massive car wreck, and now they have 4 minutes to get the money to Ryder... with no car and a quarter of the city to cross. The money goes to several motorcycle cops, who then haul ass across the city trying to get to the subway station nearest Ryder within 4 minutes. And all eyes are on those motorcycles! Time is ticking away... and when it doesn't look like they will make it in time, Garber tries to talk Ryder out of killing a hostage.

Ryder wants *Garber* to deliver the money, and gives him 7 minutes to get to the subway station and bring the money down to the hijacked subway train.

There are two more "countdowns" - one that has to do with a runaway subway train and a series of automatic stops - red lights - that must be switched to green before the speeding subway train gets to them... and a high noon ending where Garber and Ryder face off - both armed, and Ryder counts to ten and then they'll draw, like cowboys or something. The film is a series of countdowns with consequences. One race against time after another, where they narrowly beat the clock each time.

OUT OF TIME!

Ticking clocks are almost always stopped in time... but they don't have to be. The thriller OUT OF TIME (which also stars Denzel Washington) is filled with beat-the-clock suspene... where Denzel often *doesn't* solve the problem in time, which leads to even bigger problems.

Denzel is a small town cop in Florida who is having an afair with the wife of the town's big celebrity, ex-pro football star Dean Cain. When Cain and his wife are murdered, a team of big city detectives are brought in to solve the crime. Now Denzel must race against the detectives to find the real killer before they uncover all of the evidence that points to him. A good example of typical beat-the-clock suspense is when the detectives have the wife's phone records FAXed to the police station. Denzel *knows* there will be dozens of calls to his cell phone - evidence of his affair that might turn him into the number one suspect. So he has to intercept the FAX, scan it into his computer, delete his name and phone number from the list, then re-FAX it to the police department FAX machine. Problem is, after he intercepts the FAX, the detectives call the phone company and ask why it's taking so long... and the phone company resends the FAX! Now Denzel must scan and delete against the clock! Will he get his FAX sent before the phone company can resend theirs?

The film is one beat-the-clock scene after another - lots of suspense!

Later in the film, Denzel *fails* to beat the clock, which creates a big, juicy, conflict. Because he knew the victims, he has an inside track the big city detectives don't have. He uncovers a suspect - a friend of Cain's with a serious criminal record - and races to capture the suspect at his hotel room and recover any evidence that implicates Denzel. When Denzel leaves the police staion, the detecives have found the suspect's name and are searching for his current location. Can Denzel get to the hotel, capture the suspect, destroy or remove any evidence that might implicate him in the murder; *before* the detectives get there?

Denzel gets the the hotel, finds a bunch of evidence that implicates him (the plan was to frame him for the murders) and also finds the suspect... with a gun! The two fight, Denzel *kills* the suspect, grabs the evidence, flees the hotel room... but the detecives have arrived at the hotel! They seal off all of the exits! Now he is trapped in the hotel with evidence implicating him in the murders and the suspect dead upstairs! How do you get past the detectives? Because Denzel *fails* to beat the clock, fails to make his deadline, an instense situation is created - how the heck can he escape?

Because the hero usually beats the clock in movies, when he or she fails it's uexpected and interesting. It creates another layer of suspense and adds conflict from those consequences.

I used this technique in the treatment for my unproduced NIGHT HUNTER sequel: San Francisco has been taken over by vampires - it spread like a plague during a solar eclipse. Now, thousands of vampires roam the streets at night... it's not a safe place to be. The city has been quarantined with the Army given orders to shoot anyone who tries to leave. Barricades on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. But the President's wife and daughter are somewhere in the city - hiding from the army of bloodsuckers. Our hero Jack Cutter is sent into the city to rescue them, and anybody else he can find. He must complete the mission before night falls... and the vampires come out. The clock is ticking!

But everything goes wrong... and by the time he finds them, night has fallen. Time has run out! The streets are filled with vampires! (end Act 1)

By allowing time to run out, you can do two things: Escalate the conflict and show the audience that bad things CAN happen - that our hero may not always succeed. Now, when you add another ticking clock the audience isn't sure what will happen. The hero failed once - will he fail again?

Using a ticking clock that runs out of time is a great way to escalate the conflict, get your protagonist off their butts and doing something AND make your script unpredictable! Of course, it won't help you if you are trying to write a 110 page feature script without a producer giving you some crazy movie of the week deadline like 3 weeks.

Portions of this tip have been rewritten into a chapter in SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING.



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