The Race Against Time

Setting a time limit for the events of the story creates an urgency that adds to the suspense page by page. For example: "Unless he located Hawfield in twenty-four hours, the girl would be killed," or "He had six hours to reach the rendezvous point, and if he did not make it, he would be left alone behind enemy lines without resources of any kind." As the minutes tick by, each obstacle to the hero's progress is magnified and made more (pleasantly) frustrating for the reader.

Two novels which make superb use of the time limit are John Lange's Binary (in which a federal agent must find two hidden tanks of deadly nerve gas, in the center of a city, before their scheduled time of detonation) and Michael Mason's 71 Hours (in which Secret Service and FBI agents have exactly seventy-one hours to locate a hired assassin before he shoots the Russian Premier at a scheduled diplomatic mission landing at a Washington airfield).

Be certain that your time limit is a genuine restriction on the development of the plot. Don't send your hero racing towards a place when, in actual fact, there's no reason for him to be there in two hours instead of two days. Something drastic should transpire if he fails to reach the place in time.

If you have set a time limit for your hero and propelled him into a breakneck journey, don't put more than one accident of Fate in his way. If he is delayed by a long freight train crossing the road, don't repeat a similar incident with a herd of cows, and don't confront him with a landslide across the highway after those first two unexpected delays; the reader will stop believing your story. You must build obstacles from the hero's own actions. For example, if he is reacting to the pressure of the situation by driving too fast for the road conditions, it is logical for him to wreck the car. He will then need to find another vehicle or continue on foot. If he is in a blind rush to get where he's going, he might steal a car that's parked nearby with the keys in its ignition, and a confrontation with police might ensue, further delaying him. The reader would not mind this sort of obstacle, for he can see cause and effect, which are missing when the obstacle is a trick of Fate.

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