So I’m currently reading The Shining by Stephen King, among some other books (I always read more than one book at a time.) The book is reaching the critical climatic scene, and it’s hard to put down.
And I’ve been paying attention to common elements of other books that have pulled me, made me want to hide out and read it straight through. Certain books have that urgency that makes you want to turn the page, find out what happens next.
And I saw one common similarity, whether the genre is horror, mystery, or even YA science fiction.
A time limit, to be exact–a physical deadline or countdown that the characters must face in dealing with whatever major problems they may have. In the Shining, time becomes important as Hallorman the cook races to get to the hotel to save the little boy as his father turns more and more violent. The chapters make a point of letting the reader know what time it is, and what is happening in the different locations. Other Stephen King novels also utilize this countdown. I recently finished 11/22/63, a time travel novel where you’d think you had all the time in the world. But the character is trying to stop the Kenney assassination, and the closer he comes to the date (and then to the exact moment), the crazier and more dangerous things become.
You wonder why there are so many bombs in crime action shows like NCIS? Instant countdown!
You can look at other successful books and the strategy is there as well. Harry Potter Goblet of Fire uses the wizard tournament as the countdown date, with the climax taking place in the middle of the last trial. In the first Star Wars movie (that would be Episode IV) the countdown is the Death Star’s arrival at the rebel base ticking right down to the last seconds before firing their master weapon. Even in as long and sprawling a novel as Lord of the Rings, you have a countdown in two ways: the dwindling food and overall health of Frodo, wondering if he’ll last long enough to get to Mount Doom, framed against the unleashing of Mordor’s troops to take over the city of Gondor and the Fellowship trying to bring aid in time.
It’s all about time.
So basically if you want to really create that sense of urgency in your book, then take a look at your climax. Can you set a date that is known to the characters for what is going to happen? Or perhaps a converging of forces that will inevitably force them to hurry up before it’s too late? I did this in my own latest book, Journey To Landaran by having the villain up the stakes, sending a force to block Aidah from reaching her destination, the city of Landaran. But to best use that sense of urgency, the characters have to know that time is running out.
Readers will want to hurry up and read what happens.