How To Write A Time Lock

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes explains what a story time-lock is, and how to use one to ramp up the tension in your story as you move towards the climax.

Written by JJ Barnes

Time-locks are a technique in story structure to increase excitement and ramp up the stakes. If your story doesn’t have high stakes, it implies what’s going on doesn’t really matter. If it doesn’t really matter, there’s no real reason to follow that journey and it feels boring. In this post I’ll be explaining how to give your story high stakes by implementing time-locks.

What Is A Time-Lock?

A time-lock is a way of adding pressure to your story. If your Protagonist can keep working on their goals indefinitely, there’s no real pressure, so there’s no real stakes. It just means that they can keep trying and trying and the story has no end point in sight.

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However, if they have one chance to get it at one specific time and after that the opportunity is lost forever, that is high stakes.

A time-lock is how you add that pressure by setting a point in time in your story where the Protagonist has to achieve their goal, or accept failure. This means as the event approaches the pressure mounts. They must learn their information or perfect their skills and the conflict is active and intense.

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Examples Of Time-Locks

Sports and competition stories are the most naturally occurring place for time-locks. You don’t have to artificially create a reason for that situation because the final competition is right there waiting for your to use.

Whether it’s the singing competition in Pitch Perfect or the final match in Dodgeball, everybody knows what they’re building to. The audience knows the conflict will be resolved at that point. They understand the pressure and why it matters, and they know what they’re hoping for. The motivation and stakes for all involved are clear.

However, you can get time-locks into a story without a competition in the climax. You just need to find a reason why pressure is mounting for a certain point. A reason for your Protagonist to have the potential for failure be right in front of them. It’s now or never.

Court room and police dramas can have court dates where proof must be found to convict a criminal. Fantasy stories can have the alignment of planets or a phase of the moon. Rom-coms can have a ball or event your characters want to attend together. External forces coming together to apply pressure on your character to get it done, or lose their chance forever.

Where I Used Time-Locks

Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit Book by JJ Barnes on The Table Read
Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit Book

I created a time-lock in Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit. When Lilly goes to Adamantine, a magical research facility, she starts to suspect there could be dangerous things happening. I knew I needed to put pressure on her to learn who she can trust fast or it would just start to plod as she pokes about.

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I used the concept of “A Final Gathering.” Something she learns about at Adamantine without knowing whether it’s good or bad, what’s going to happen, or who’s involved. But she knows it is coming, and she knows it’s potentially bad.

Once that pressure is added to Lilly, she has to start making decisions fast. She is forced to become active and take risks and make choices. The pressure and tension are up, the conflict is strong, and the consequences are clear. The story is now headed for a climax that matters.

How To Write Time-Locks

It won’t always be immediately clear how to write time-locks into your story. If you don’t have a natural event to build to, an exam or competition or wedding etc, then it can be a challenge.

However, if you feel like your story would benefit from some added pressure and a definite end point, you can usually find a way to make time-locks work.

Look at the circumstances of your story. If it’s a love story create an event such as a party or a prom. If your Protagonist is in love with a person, and perhaps competing for their love with another, that event adds immediate pressure and conflict. That time-lock application is an immediate stakes raiser.

Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven by JJ Barnes, How To Write Flashbacks, on The Table Read
Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven by JJ Barnes

In Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven the time-lock is more fluid, and this can work too. The time-lock in this story is that a man is hunting for a girl, and the coven know he will find her. The actual specific time and date he will find her they don’t know, but they know it’s soon, and getting closer. If you’re writing a murder mystery or a crime story, you can use this fluid time-lock style. It’s not definite WHEN, but it’s definitely SOON. The danger is coming.

Adding High Stakes

There’s so many styles of story and so many ways you can do this. It doesn’t really matter what the time-lock is, just that it exists and does it job.

Once that pressure is applied to your Protagonist, your story is driving forwards. There’s no time to sit around doing nothing, no time to let your story drag. Your Protagonist will be active and busy, your story will be entertaining and moving, because that time-lock forces it to.

Your character will be motivated, and your audience will understand why. What they want is clear, and if it didn’t matter the time-lock wouldn’t matter either, so your audience will be invested.

A character that is motivated and driven will capture your audiences interest. The high stakes will keep it entertaining. And applying the time-lock is the perfect way to make that happen.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website:

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Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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