Friday, January 21, 2011

Fiction's Fatal Flaw: The Missing Deadline

Ready?  BEGIN!

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:

No deadline.

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.




Claudia Putnam said...

I agree... to an extent. What would you then say about many of the greats... was Cold Mountain not a great read? What about Herman Hesse's Demian? Or Sarte's The Stranger? Kristin Lavansdattir, which is three volumes of a woman's whole life? How about even some of the Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes novels? Or Jane Eyre? It just seems to me that fine writers have lots of ways of keeping the reader hooked, and readers have lots of reasons for wanting to know what happens next, including their engagement with the ideas the author is propounding, or their engagement with the characters, or their intrigue with the setting, or with the complexity of a mystery. What about movies like When Harry Met Sally? Or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? That's just narrative... stuff happens, the end.

I'm just saying. Deadline definitely helps if you're trying to tell a certain kind of story, but I don't know how I'd insert it in the novel I'm trying to write, which is about a woman's life in the American West, starting when she's about 16 until her death at age 90. Thoughts?

Ami Hendrickson said...


I'd respectfully argue that Cold Mountain made good use of the deadline -- both in mini-deadlines throughout the story (will Inman live or die?) and in a major deadline at the end (will he make it home to Ada before he's found out as a deserter?)

Agatha Christie & Sherlock Holmes were often working against the deadline of solve-the-case-before-someone-else-dies.

And I would argue (though this is just my personal opinion) that the reader's involvement with a complex mystery is significantly heightened if there is a deadline by which the mystery must be solved or else unwanted consequences occur.

In the case of a book about a woman's lengthy life, I believe that incorporating mini-deadlines that mark major life events within the text would make the story more engaging, more imminent, and more compelling to the reader than a mere narrative that covers 74 years.

That's just my two cents' worth. Best of luck to you on your project!

a.q.s. said...

I read blog posts by authors all the time and none have been as helpful as this for my current WIP MS.


~annie ( @so_you_know) : )

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for the kind words. They made my day. Here's hoping you come up with a killer deadline (or six) for your WIP.

Onward and upward!