Bestselling novels deliver emotionally-charged moments. Many times, these moments come in the form of deadlines, or ticking clocks, that trigger urgency in both the story and the reader.
Deadlines come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common is a clearly defined limit that is rapidly approaching.
Before we look at five deadlines that show up in every (ok, many) bestsellers, let’s quickly summarize the power of these story limits:
- Deadlines present immediate threats
- Deadlines create urgency
- Deadlines promise consequences
- Deadlines get reader attention
- Deadlines force characters to act — Now!
- Deadlines are versatile
- Deadlines can be inserted into every genre of writing
- Deadlines move the plot forward (often at lightning speed)
5 Deadlines That Show Up in Every Bestseller
- Story Deadline
- Resource Deadline
- Character Deadline (life and death)
- Chase Deadline
- Disaster Deadline
Let’s start with the Story Deadline. A story deadline is a ticking clock that drapes the entire story, that essentially drives the whole narrative from first page to last.
When a book or movie is titled 48 hours, that is a story limit because there is a specific timeframe in which the characters must act to resolve the story problem. The characters and the story are driven by this time limit. Each page, each chapter rockets us closer to the deadline.
Nearly every bestseller includes a story deadline since without it there is little impetus to act. A story that lacks a driving force, lacks urgency and character motivation. Why would a character act now if they can act tomorrow, or next week or next month? A story deadline forces characters to choose action in the immediate here and now at the threat of swift and dire consequences.
Examples of Story Deadlines
- In the blockbuster movie, TAKEN, a father must track down and save his kidnapped daughter before she is sold into sexual slavery.
- The popular 24 TV series with Jack Bauer is built around a story deadline: Jack has 24 hours to stop a terrorist attack.
- In my novel, Dark Halo, a father has 48 hours to save his family and small town from a demonic invasion.
- Nearly every Dan Brown novel has his protagonist, Robert Langdon, racing to solve an unsolvable riddle before some revelation changes the world forever.
Story deadlines are so prevalent because they instantly improve stories by injecting the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense that readers love. This overarching layer of suspense adds tension to even “slower” sections of stories because the reader is always thinking, “Yeah, but what about the bomb/terrorist/victim/?” Story deadlines keep readers engaged through necessary backstory, plot development and reaction scenes. Story deadlines serve as ever-present reminders of story stakes, consequences and meaning.