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What are some conventions for creating a sense of urgency?

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I do not believe I came up with the concept of urgency in a main conflict, but I cannot find the original source, so I will just define it here.

When I create and develop a main conflict (I am a plotter, meaning I plan out my novel prior to writing them), I make sure it has several key traits. One of those traits is urgency; that is, the thing keeping the protagonist from sitting around twiddling their thumbs because they have all the time in the world to solve the main conflict. With urgency in place, they do not have all the time in the world. They should, in fact, have very little time indeed, if any at all. This pressures them to solve the main problem/conflict, and that pressure in turn generates additional tension for the reader.

I believe every main conflict should have at least some amount of urgency, some reason that the character has to solve it now rather than later. Whether or not this is true, is not the question. The question is as follows:

Question: Are there any methods/formulas/conventions/common practices for creating urgency? I frequently find myself stuck trying to create urgency, and this has led me to wonder if there are some conventions for creating it that I am not aware of.

Note: I'm not looking for how to write urgency. I'm looking for what causes that urgency. It take many forms, so I'm looking for a formula or common practice that will enable me to easily add urgency to any situation.


Examples of urgency:

Main Problem: The bomb must be defused.

Urgency: The bomb is activated, and the timer is going down. The bomb has to be defused NOW!

Or...

Main Problem: We need to find a way out of the maze.

Urgency: ...And we're being chased by monsters. We need to get out NOW!

And one with a more traditional conflict rather than simply a passing problem:

Main Conflict: Joe needs to find a way to tell Jim he's sorry for what happened.

Urgency: Jim is leaving the country in a week. Joe has to find a way to tell him soon.

Google searches for 'urgency' yield either nothing, or articles that use the term 'urgency' in place of 'conflict.'

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What are some conventions for creating a sense of urgency?

Maybe there are conventions, I'd posit that there must be motivation, and stress from thwarting factors. A sense of limited time is also common but not essential.

Your character/s have an objective (let's postulate some):

  • To survive the bomb.
  • To get out of the maze.
  • To get rid of the incriminating evidence.
  • To get to a safe place.
  • To have sex.

Etc..

Then you need some potentially or actually confounding events/conditions

  • The bomb countdown speeds up, the door is locked.
  • The maze changes every time you think you know where you are, the lights are going out one by one.
  • The cops pull you over - broken taillight the gun is in the glovebox - with your prints on it.
  • Your captor cuts your feet off. ;)
  • The person you're making out with with in the sauna is really sexy and your towel is tiny. Your mom comes to the door.

You can then find that the character is stuck in a bind:

  • If you try to diffuse the bomb it may explode - time is running out.

  • Do you give in to your fear of the dark, the only way out is further into darkness - or follow your urge to huddle in a corner? It's getting darker.

  • If you seem nervous the cop gets suspicious, this makes you even more nervous.

  • If you crawl away you won't get far and will get punished for trying, your captor is out shopping, but for how long? Won't get another chance for weeks.

  • You are both really excited but your mom starts telling you (from outside the door) about the intricacies of your granddad's bowel problems - If you give your mom the wrong answer she may come in. The towel is really really tiny. The towel slides to the floor...

Thus in each situation you add a second motivating factor, the factors potentially contradict or conflict each-other. A finite or indeterminate amount of time to finish a critical task is often a factor - certain known things to be found in tension with an element of uncertainty is very familiar from popular fiction - ie. what could happen - the potential. Also fair to say, one of the motivating factors commonly involves fear.

You will notice however that both the person in the sauna and the situation with the cop are not dependent on time so much as other factors, the immediacy (certainty) of the cop's/mom's presence, the gun (fear of getting caught)/massive barely concealed boner (fear of embarrassment) , the (potential) interactions and the cop's/mom's/lover's (indeterminate) thoughts and future actions. Those ones could be kept going for as long as you like without significant handwaving.

Cognitive dissonance is a closely but not exclusively associated phenomenon.

When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort.

Again it comes down to psychological stress.

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To me, urgency is about setting the right environment, tone, mood, feel. It's about how you describe their actions. Are they moving around the maze quickly? Or do they stumble into walls as they scurry about desperate to find a way out. Are they constantly looking at watches while the time ticks closer and closer to inevitable doom or do you assert that they need to hurry but then never have them be time conscious?

Ultimately, it comes down to word choice. What would YOU do if you were in a hurry in that situation? Take those actions, take those thoughts, and put them to words. Do people around them become a blur in their rush? Does hearing the monsters roar in the distance make their hearts jump and skip a beat as their tired legs find renewed energy to push on, desperate to escape?

EDIT: OP is looking for ideas on how to create the situations that would require urgency and not how to create urgency as in the actual action of urgency.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/26308. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I do have to comment that your first example is getting kinda laughable in it's ability to cause a sense of Urgency... we all know it will be the last possible second that the bomb will be defused, especially in the climax and the heroes are present. A better example would be a Hitchcock bomb where the unaware party is discussing a mundane topic while the scene keeps cutting to the countdown of the bomb. The tension of the scene is built by the audience's exclusive knowledge of the bomb's presance, not the defusing of a bomb.

Another good example is the use of the device from the Twilight Zone episode "The Obsolete Man" where two men are locked in the room with a bomb and the situation is developed in such a way that one man is ready to die, but will release the other if and only if a certain condition unknown to both the audience and the second man is met.

A ticking bomb that must be defused, rarely does this job because, we all know the blast will be stopped at 0:01 on a digital clock. The best way to subvert the expectation is to have a 15 minute count down stopped at 10:00... then cut to an office party at HQ to celebrate the Spy Agencies newest record for bomb disarmament by the hero. With Cake and Punch.

The one story example I saw with a good subversion of the countdown was in Disney's Basil of Baker Street where the titular hero realizes that the only way out of the deathtrap (with a countdown) is to trigger the whole device prematurely at the right moment, and cause a cascading chain reactions of failures.

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Situations that create a sense of urgency can be condensed to a running timer: there's the total amount of time, there's the time still left, and there's what is expected to happen when time runs out. When writing a scene, you have to justify those elements. You can also play with them.

Let me explain: in your maze example, what limits the amount of time the characters can spend there? Are the monsters more likely to attack when it grows dark, and the sun is already setting? Do they have a limited amount of food and water (in which case losing the bag of food while running from a monster would shorten their time, while finding a water source would give them some more time)? The presence of monsters alone does not convey a sense of urgency, since there's no timer attached to it - it only conveys a sense of danger.

Your bomb example: if there's a time-trigger, there's urgency. That's why you see those so often in movies. Even then, if the bomb is set to explode at 16:00, you've got to justify the characters arriving at the scene at 15:50, rather than 14:00. But if the thing is triggered rather by some form of physical contact, characters can take their time clearing all civilians away, getting a robot on site, and diffusing the thing. Not glamorous, but actually much more common.

Some situations come with an inbuilt timer: if a character has been shot, there's only so much time until he bleeds out and dies. In other situations, you've got to set the timer manually, as you did in your third example (friend due to leave in a week).

A second crucial element is that the time is never enough. If the available time is adequate for the task, there's no problem, no story. It is when time is insufficient that characters must put forth all their resourcefulness, overcome the odds, and make it.

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When i write a scene that needs to feel fast and urgent the most important thing that I do is shorten sentences.

In contrast let's take a calm scene. Calm could mean tense but still in a way static. I use long sentences to create imagery and describe every sight, sound, and smell I can to convey the scene.

When things get urgent this flips. Sentences become short and fast, just conveying what the reader needs to know. Humans feel this when they read. Every period is a mental tick in their mind, so when the periods come at the reader quickly the speed of the ticks increases and everything moves faster. The reader feels uncomfortable and wants to get out of this situation and return back to normal flow. Often at climax the sentences can become single words.

Here are two paragraphs from my writing. The first one is meant to be slow

I dig myself out and the world returns. Gray beams of rotting wood holding up the shadowed roof. The train car is empty except for me, hay for animals that have already met their slaughter, and them. I cannot see them, they are too fast. They scurry from my sight before my eyeballs can turn in my skull. I know they are there, in my peripheral, taunting me as they crawl around, slithering… squirming… safe…

and then the next the scene speeds up, and everything goes quickly.

They are not safe. I whip around, claws extended, and tear into them. My fingers find nothing but hay, dung, and floorboards that snap before my impotent wrath. They are behind me now. Retreating to the shadows where they think they can escape. I leap across, I strike, I kill… there is nothing there.

Even if the sentience is longer, commas chop it up. There is a rhythm that keeps the reader engaged to the time of the action.

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The formula for urgency is very simple:

Time constraint + emotionally significant consequences = Urgency

That's all there is to it. You can vary this endlessly, and always end up with urgency. For instance, if Jamal doesn't get to the restaurant on time, his girlfriend is going to leave him. So it's very urgent that he get out of this traffic jam right away. No bomb or monsters needed.

However, without the emotionally significant consequences, you can't get urgency, no matter what heavy artillery you're throwing at the story. Keep in mind, however, what is significant depends on your character. If your character's self-image is based on always winning, even something as trivial as getting to the front door first can seem urgent --to her. So, if you want to end up with urgency, you want to start with a character who is going to really care about whatever the stakes turn out to be. That's easier if the stakes are life-and-death. But it's far from impossible if they aren't.

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If you want to see conventions; look to action flicks like Die Hard or Taken (or dozens of others).

There is your standard ticking bomb.

There is the bad guy escaping -- Willis must find a way to follow. On top of that, the bad guy has kidnapped his wife and daughter to use against him.

There is the impending action of the bad guy -- Liam gets an urgent message from his daughter, and knows she is kidnapped by sex slavers. He must find her before she is sold, or raped.

There is the delaying capture or setback, when the mission gets routine -- The transportation breaks down, or the hero is captured, stranded, or trapped (like Indiana Jones, 007), eating time on the clock while they must escape and then get back on track.

If the hero has partners, especially novices to emergency, there is the breakup -- it all becomes too much for the partner, they are overwhelmed, they almost DIED, and they throw in the towel. That eats time because the hero cannot succeed without the super-hacker or whatever skill the partner brings.

The ticking time bomb can take many forms, it does not have to be a literal bomb. It can be new information: We discover the President will be assassinated at 1:30 PM, in twenty minutes!

The bus is going to explode if it drops under 50MPH, and we just learned it is running with the fuel dial a hair above empty!

The plane is going to fall out of the sky if we don't get the engine restarted in the next three minutes.

The asteroid is going to hit in three hours, we have to finish drilling the hole for the nuke, and the now the bit is stripped and has to be replaced.

We were wrong about who is behind the coup, and that means it isn't happening in three weeks, it is happening tomorrow, and our plans to prevent it are out the window.

The essential elements of urgency are "surprise" that ruins plans and demands fast adaptation (surprise includes failures of the hero's plans), and inevitable terrible consequences if you don't act immediately, usually taking a great risk by doing so. (It isn't that exciting if immediate action demands no personal risk.)

It is always time dependent, but you can cast that in many ways without a ticking clock: Matt Damon (Bourne Identity) cannot lose the bad guy he is chasing over the rooftops, he has to make the same leaps and jumps and catch this guy. The clock is there but hidden; Matt must keep up in the race or lose the game.

Likewise, he must infiltrate the facility and eliminate agents quickly and efficiently or risk discovery and failure. Or they are searching for him and by sheer manpower will find him if he doesn't get out quickly. The clock is there, but hidden. Hurry up, Matt, find that stupid file already!

Or take Ocean's Eleven scenes. A piece of hacking equipment is balking and won't work, it needs to be fixed on the fly and they only have seconds to do it. Their plan for interrupting power fails due to city work, now they must hurry and steal an EMP. But then the amateur amongst them disobeys orders and screws THAT up, and in the hurry to escape somebody gets hurt, then they have to deal with THAT quick. An unexpected development produces urgency; while addressing that in an impromptu manner an amateur mistake leads to another urgency, that forces an accident that leads to more urgency (a broken hand), which is an unexpected development that demands a new plan...

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