Are Time Limits Raising Your Stakes?

I directed Hamlet once. I’d like to do it again, because I’d change just about everything. It’s a pity that you have to direct a show in order to figure out how to best direct that show. Anyway, what I was going to say is that my girl who played Ophelia wanted to work out a bit of business in the opening court scene. She wanted to do an elaborate pass-the-note scene with Hamlet, which, if memory serves, I nixed, because of Authenticity.

Ophelia Is Pregnant

Today we’re talking about time limits and high stakes. Hamlet, our dearly departed heir apparent to the throne of Denmark, is, in the opening of the play, about to become a father. Proof, you say? What’s this? You want proof? All right, but first, let’s talk about high stakes.

Use Time Limits

Nine months is a bit of time; most women start showing somewhere around the five-month mark of pregnancy. When your story operates within a fixed time-limit, the stakes lift themselves. Look at these two scenarios:

1) My uncle might have killed my father, and I have to figure out if I should murder him in revenge.

2) I got my fiancé pregnant because we were about to get married, seeing as I was weeks away from becoming the king of Denmark. Well, I didn’t try to get her pregnant, but my father died unexpectedly, and she was making me feel better, and one thing led to another, and we’re getting married soon, so she was, you know, comforting me. Anyhow, she’s pregnant now, and it turns out that my mother and my uncle got married before the coronation, and now—well, now I’m not going to be the king of Denmark unless I do something pretty bloody. But my fiancé is pregnant. And now I’m seeing visions of my dead father, who says he was murdered by my uncle. So . . .

Time-Limits Raise The Stakes

Give yourself these two pretend scenarios:

1) Claudius poisoned my dad, and I need to take revenge.

2) Ophelia’s going to start showing, and her father will go nuts and/or kill her if he finds out, plus, Claudius probably murdered my father and I need to take revenge, but it would be best if I took care of this before Ophelia really starts showing, so I can take the throne and marry her, or hide her in the country.

Number two is more stressful, right? There’s a natural climax in that scenario, isn’t there? Take your novel, whatever it is, and give yourself a time limit.

An Example

Don’t worry, I’ll give you some proof in a bit (not all of the proof, because that would take hours).

For our example, let us take a young lad from the science academy in the Faedel galaxy. In the bad example, I shall show the boy operating under no time limit. Then, in the good example, I will give our hero a ticking clock, and we will see which example has higher and more effective stakes.

Bad Writing (No Limit):

Geezer scrubbed the microfibre cloth over the outsized monitor, and he ground his teeth as he did so. Lousy professors, he thought, and he pushed the nozzle of the gen-dispenser. A cloud of nanobot foam splattered over the screen, and he mashed the cloth against the glass.

The science academy was low on funds; if the board could afford it, they would have replaced all these old Earth screens with the new plasma models. Those, Geezer reflected morosely, required exactly zero scrubbing.

He sighed as he looked down the long row of monitors that he had yet to clean. Lousy work-study program, he thought, and he bent his elbow into the work. The nanobots emitted the very faintest of hums as he ground them against the screen.

Good Writing (Time Limit):

“And if you aren’t finished by the end of zero-hour, I’ll be putting you on the first transport home!”

Jezebel’s voice echoed through the classroom as she departed, slamming the door behind her. Geezer looked despairingly down the long line of filthy monitors. Zero-hour was close; he would never finish in time, which, he supposed, was the point. Professor Jezebel had been trying to oust him from the moment she’d learned his father was from her home city.

Had to go and open my big mouth, Geezer thought, as he scooped up the bottle of nanobot foam. “Guaranteed to clean while you’re away!” the bottle read. Geezer had been using the foam regularly in his duties as part of the work-study janitorial team, and he was drenched in despair as he reflected in his inevitable failure.

As you can see, adding the pressure of a time limit helps those stakes get hopping, and your reader-brain begins to work in overdrive to predict the outcome. Use time constraints to heighten your stakes, and bask in the dramatic tension that results.

And Now, A Smidgen Of Proof

I said I would give you a bit of proof; here is a ditty Ophelia sings at the end of the play:

Yong men wil doo’t, if they come too’t,
By Cocke they are too blame.
Quoth she before you tumbled me,
You promis’d me to Wed:
So would I ha done by yonder Sunne,
And thou hadst not come to my bed.

And in a later scene:

. . . ther’s Rew for you, and heere’s some for me. Wee may call it Herbe-Grace a Sundaies: Oh you must weare your Rew with a difference.

Rue is a flower rich with symbolism (the queen has to wear her rue differently, because she [the queen] is an adulteress, but rue, at the time, was also a flower that, if eaten, could cause an abortion. Pregnancy creates a time-limit, and hiding pregnancy heightens the stakes, and shortens the window of efficacious action. Do like Shakespeare, and make use of time limits to raise your stakes.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here. Wednesday is probably the most perfect day for picking up and reading Delmar’s Magic.

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