‘Tick tock, tick tock’
After finishing the first novel in the Ringu trilogy by Koji Suzuki last week it was evident that I hadn’t read a book so quickly in a long time.
For those of you who haven’t read it or seen the film (the Japanese or American version), the basic plot is that of a journalist who, after the death of a family member becomes involved in a race against time to solve the mystery of a video tape that kills anyone who watches it seven days later.
I saw the films a long time ago and particularly appreciated the cool aesthetics of Gore Verbinski’s remake, taking full advantage of North America’s gloomy Pacific Northwest filtered in shades of blue and green.
The element of the ‘time limit’ is of equal importance in the films but I felt it was more affecting in the novel and it made me consider for the first time how this technique can be employed to create such a high state of tension it makes it impossible to put a book down.
For such an exciting story I believe readers will accept some personal sacrifice.
I read it on the bus to work even though I felt I might vomit. I read it when I was walking the dog and risked all kinds of problems one might face when not looking down at the pavement, even inciting a comment from a lady across the street who shouted “That’s different !” when she saw me both walking and reading at the same time.
I read it in places I would normally consider it rude while in the company of others and I read it in my nightly legs-up-the-wall yoga pose that’s supposed to slow down your heart rate, not speed it up.
We can be creative with time limits to some extent.
They’re not uniquely reserved for life or death situations and can begin at any stage within a story from the beginning to just before the climax.
The one uncompromisable aspect of using time limits that I’ve come across so far however is high stakes. If our stakes are not high enough, readers are not going to care about whatever it is our character wants to save even if we’ve done a good job of convincing them in other ways.
Let’s take an example from Ringu. Asakawa the protagonist discovers the cursed tape and watches it. He has seven days to live and he has a wife and a young daughter back home who love him. The stakes are somewhat high; we feel empathy for a cruel fate that Akasawa did not choose and that if he dies his family will suffer deeply. Of course this is terribly sad but could Suzuki raise the stakes even higher?
Of course he can.
After leaving the tape at home one morning Asakawa’s wife and child watch the tape too. Now the clock is ticking for the whole family and if Asakawa dies before he’s able to figure out the mystery, it’s almost certain that his family will meet the same fate.
In my ignorance I used to think that using a time limit in a story was a bit of a cheap trick, something that could only be used for action based apocalyptic/political thrillers, but Suzuki shows us it doesn’t have to be. He demonstrates that it is possible to write something thrilling and fast-paced outside of theses genres with high quality characters and beautiful prose.
Additionally in stories with time limits the author can often overuse flashbacks to slow down the pace and to develop character. While Suzuki does use this technique on occasion, he never overdoes it, focusing more on describing the character’s environment to temper the speed and using the way they relate to it to reveal their state of mind: their dreams, fears and memories.
In summary, the things I’ve learnt so far about use a time limit successfully are:
- Be creative with how and when the clock starts ticking
- Make sure the stakes are high and always question if they can go any higher (something I find extremely difficult).
- Flesh out the characters to the point where they become so beautifully rich and complex they could turn up at your door right now and shake your hand (we need to do this anyway of course but making readers care about the characters and therefore their fate is vital if the time limit technique is going to work).
- And finally, when we’re writing fast paced stories to imagine all the different ways we can slow down the pace without resorting to clichés and making the prose drag and bump across the floor.
Until next time^^,