When you’re writing suspense, few things up the stakes as efficiently as a race against time. Also known as a “race against the clock” or a “ticking time bomb,” it is a useful plot device that can create as much anxiety for your audience as it does for your characters. And if you’re a fan of thriller novels or action movies, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across it plenty of times.

As with any plot device, a race against time can add a lot to your writing if it’s done well. But to accomplish that, you’ll want to do a little bit of research on how and when the device works best. We’ve put together this quick guide to the race against time, including some hints for using it in your work. 

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What Is a Race Against Time?

A storytelling device that serves to infuse urgency into a situation, a race against time has two distinct features:

  1. The character must achieve something within a certain time frame.
  2. If the character doesn’t achieve it, they face a serious consequence.

This device raises the stakes of whatever it is that the character is doing, thus making the story more exciting for the audience. As the time ticks down, the character and the scene will take on an additional layer of suspense, and that suspense will then be passed onto the audience. And if you’re writing a thriller and you want to keep your readers on the edge of their seats throughout a scene, the race against time is almost guaranteed to do it.

Note that a race against time doesn’t have to be a thing, per se. Rather, it’s any sort of high-stakes pressure that exists within certain laid-out time constraints. Weather, illness, or running out of food and water can all serve as a race against time so long as your audience is aware that there is some sort of time limit in place.

Origin of the Race Against Time

While the exact origins of the race against time plot device are unknown, the idea behind using time to build suspense in a story is largely attributed to Aristotle, who noted that an effective drama has three key pieces: story, space, and time. By limiting the amount of time the protagonist has to achieve their goal, the storyteller adds tension and keeps the audience engaged. It doesn’t have to be a literal ticking time bomb (and indeed, the playwrights of Aristotle’s day certainly wouldn’t have known what that was), but it should be some constraint that’s just as obvious—and just as potentially damning.

For an early example of the race against time, read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which features an incredibly high-stakes storyline that takes place all within the course of a single day.

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Famous Race Against Time Examples

A race against time is almost always going to be a memorable component of a story. Check out these examples of the race against time in famous works, and see if you can identify other uses of the device in your own favorite books and movies.

In Literature

  • The Terror by Dan Simmons: In Simmons’ fictional account of a real-life shipwreck, the sailors of the doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition must try to escape an Arctic landscape as quickly as possible, racing against not just the weather but dwindling food supplies and a blood-thirsty monster on the ice.
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne: There are multiple instances in Verne’s novel where the characters must race against time in order to survive, but perhaps none so claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing as when Axel accidentally veers off from the group and must find the professor and Hans before he succumbs to exhaustion and is lost forever in the dark.

In Movies

  • Titanic: Obviously, the characters are racing against time when fighting hypothermia in the waters of the Atlantic; however, the device is perhaps most pronounced during the scene when Rose must find and save Jack from a below-deck room where he is handcuffed to a pole amidst quickly-rising waters.
  • Back to the Future: If Marty McFly wants to get back to the present, he must drive the DeLorean time machine at the exact moment the clock tower strikes midnight. Any later, and he’ll be stuck in the past forever.
  • Say Anything: In a lower-stakes race against time, the romantic comedy Say Anything features one character (Lloyd) who’s trying to get another character (Diane) to fall in love with him before she moves away to England at the end of the summer.

How to Write a Race Against Time

There’s nothing quite like a race against time to build tension into your story. To make it work, though, you need to follow a few best practices—each of which will help ensure that your take is as suspenseful as an actual ticking time bomb, even if there’s no actual bomb in sight.

Up the Stakes

One notable similarity in the examples above is that the character or characters have a lot on the line in their race against time. Marty McFly will be stuck in the wrong timeline if he doesn’t transition back to the present when the clock strikes 12, and in most of the other examples, the consequence for letting the clock win is certain death. Even Say Anything gets a lot of suspense from the plot device, since Lloyd’s sole objective throughout the film is to win Diane’s heart, and he’ll lose his chance forever if he doesn’t accomplish that in time.

If you want your race against time to matter to your characters and to your audience, there need to be stakes. The more there is to lose, the more effective the countdown will be in creating suspense in the story.  

Make It Clear What There is to Lose

It’s not enough to just include high stakes—you also need to make sure that your audience knows what they are and how important they are. Again, this is essential to achieving suspense in the scene, since without obvious consequences, it’s unclear why the ticking clock matters at all.

Keep in mind that your character’s anxiety is a key component of the race against time, so they need to know what consequences they’re facing, too. If you can succeed in not just setting out high stakes but ensuring that both character and audience know how crucial time is to the situation, your race against time will be a whole lot more effective.

Don’t Rush It

You don’t want to drag out the race (if there’s plenty of time to kill, then it’s hard to stress the feeling of urgency), but you shouldn’t speed through to the conclusion either. Keep your audience guessing, and don’t make it clear right away that your character is going to beat the clock. This further cements your stakes in place, and it brings in more of that stress-laden fun that audiences are looking for in a thriller.

Learn to Thrill With Your Writing

Loving thrillers is one thing—writing them is another. As you learn more about this handy storytelling device time and other suspense-inducing plot devices, practice writing scenes that include them so you can start to get more comfortable working them into your stories. While you’re at it, make sure to read as much as you write; and when you come across a race against time, pay attention to the pacing and the stakes to get some helpful takeaways that you can use in your own creative writing. 

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Written by:

Laura Mueller