5 Deadlines That Show Up In Every Bestseller: Character Deadlines


There are 5 deadlines, or ticking clocks, that consistently show up in bestselling novels.

In the last two posts, we talked about the Story Deadline and the Resource Deadline. If you haven’t read those, I strongly encourage you to go check them out. Today, I’d like to focus on another deadline common in bestsellers – the Character Deadline.

Before we dive in, here’s a quick review of all 5 Deadlines:

5 Deadlines That Show Up in Every Bestseller

Story Deadline
Resource Deadline
Character Deadline (life and death)
Chase Deadline
Disaster Deadline

Remember, too, the nonnegotiable elements of a deadline: a time limit, a clear threat to a character in the story and reader awareness of both the time limit and threat. In bestsellers, characters sometimes know about the time limit and threat and sometimes they don’t. However, readers always know so that they can care, fear and worry about the characters.

Now to the Character Deadline. This ticking clock involves, you guessed it, the characters themselves with the looming threat often life or death. Anytime a character races against the clock to save themselves, you’ve got a Character Deadline. Nearly every blockbuster movie and bestselling book is full of them.

Here a few quick examples of Character Deadlines:

  • In the thrill-a-minute military film, Lone Survivor, a small group of elite soldiers must constantly  evade a larger enemy force or else be killed. This movie (based on a harrowing true story) is basically a string of Character Deadlines.
  • Numerous scenes in the hit show The Walking Dead center on characters trapped while hordes of flesh-hungry zombies surround them. These are all variations on the Character Deadline approach.
  • In my novel, Past Lives, one of the main characters is hypnotized to set her house on fire and hang herself. The Character Deadline overshadowing these scenes is, “Will the other characters reach her before she asphyxiates? “

You might already realize the flexibility of these Character Deadlines for generating suspense in story. They naturally inject immediacy, danger and a gut-level survival experience (for both readers and characters).

As you integrate Character Deadlines into your own stories, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  1. Character Deadlines can be about any character in the story (major or minor – even about the antagonist!)
  2. Character Deadlines can be a small part of the scene or encompass the entire scene (or several scenes)
  3. Character Deadlines often threaten the lives of the characters (although any kind of threat – divorce, job loss, etc. could also work)

Since there are hundreds of variations of Character Deadlines, keep an eye out for them as you watch movies and read novels. Then adapt these types of deadlines to your own stories for instant suspense.


Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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