If you've ever watched an action movie or read a thriller novel, then you're already very familiar with this Element. This is the time limit, the blinking timer, the bomb that will explode in 3 minutes if you don't clip the correct wire. Often, the Countdown is intimately connected with the Risk of Failure - if you don't accomplish X within this time, then Z will happen, and you don't like Z.

You might remember that a while back I referenced the cycle of "tension and release" that makes for an engaging storyline (most commonly used in horror, but applicable anywhere). The Countdown is part of that tension and release cycle that keeps each subsequent peak of tension a trending a littler higher than the one before.

If you've watched the Extra Credits video on Pacing, you've seen their chart on how pacing is supposed to go, a little higher each time, with a little valley between the peaks. The curve goes up and down, but always trends up until you reach the climax. Their example chart follows the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope, which is iconic for its Countdown.

They only have a certain amount of time before the Death Star is operational, and once it's ready, a shorter amount of time left until it can blow up their rebel base. Without those time constraints, then that ever-increasing tension would stumble and falter at the end, and you would end up with a story that drags in the middle and doesn't maintain its engagement curve.

 

That's not to say that no story can function without a Countdown. I can think of several that work very well without one - like A Princess of Mars, or War Horse. Those are both incredibly engaging stories, but for the majority of the plot, there are no time-sensitive elements.

The reason this Element is so common, I think, is because it's so easy to implement, both in real life and in the fake ones we build on paper and screen. It's a really useful tool in our belts as creators, but as always, we must think about how it's being used. Are we using this tool because it's the best one for the job, or are we using it because it's the easiest one and doesn't take much effort?

 

What stories can you think of that use the Countdown? Did they use it well, or did it fall flat? Tell me in the comments below! Until next time, Inklings, stay awesome.

 

PS - Here's the Extra Credits video I referenced earlier. It's only fair that I put it here for you lot that haven't seen it yet or want to refresh your memories.

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