This post is short. You should be able to read it in a minute. Minute and a half at the most.
That in itself may be incentive to keep reading. (Ah well, I can spare 90 seconds while waiting to see who RT'd my latest tweet.) But imagine that I promised to give $5000 to everyone who finished reading it in under 90 seconds...
OR that your life depended upon your reading and understanding every word before the counter hits 90.
Suddenly, this little post takes on a whole new persona. It becomes alive. It affects the reader on a personal level. It means something to you. Your relationship with the words on the page is now imbued with tension, conflict, and drama.
Such is the power of the deadline.
Last summer, the fabulous and amazing uberagent Conrad Williams graciously read and critiqued one of my screenplays. The script is my go-to contest entry: it consistently places well and, at the time I screwed up the courage to request Mr. Williams' opinion, it was as good as I could make it.
His comments were insightful and gracious (and overwhelmingly positive, which was a relief since it took me 3 days before I could find the guts to read what he said). Hands down, however, his most useful note was the one where he zeroed in on my story's fatal flaw:
See, throughout the script stuff happens. Lots of stuff: swords and sorcery, intrigue and mystery. But there is no clear root-for-the-hero-before-time-runs-out deadline.
As soon as he pointed the flaw out to me, I saw it. (More difficult to see, it pains me to admit, is how to fix the flaw without making it appear contrived. Truth be told, I'm still working on it.) I had an ah-ha epiphany: So THAT'S what's been missing. And I could have kicked myself for not noticing the problem sooner.
Deadlines are critical to getting your audience invested in the outcome of your story. (How you doin' with the time, there? Think you'd get those 5 Gs?)
Imagine the original "Star Wars" if all the rebel forces had to do was take out the Death Star. Good, but not great. Factor in the added threat that they have to neutralize the Empire's newest weapon before it destroys the planet with Leia & the rebels on it, and the deadline bumps the story's "Gotcha Quotient (GQ)" into the stratosphere.
Deadlines anchor a story and its characters in time ("If I don't have the money by noon tomorrow, your career is over!"). They give the audience something specific to root for ("I've got to be in Fresno before 6 for my wedding!). The audience also understands - and fears - the consequences that will ensue should our hero miss the deadline ("Without that medicine in the next 24 hours, my little boy is dead!").
Deadlines serve another critical function: They force the story to move. Ever read something that wasn't poorly written per se, but that just didn't grab you? Bet it was missing a few deadlines!
Want to keep your readers hanging on every word? Let them sink their teeth into a deadline.