One of the tried and true methods of injecting urgency and momentum to a script is to add a ticking clock. This dramatic device puts a story into a pressure cooker, providing a clear end point by which things will either be resolved or exploded. The ticking clock provides a metronome as a film’s backdrop and cues the audience to rest assured that the story will drive measuredly toward its obligatory scene.
Miranda July uses this device in her 2011 film The Future to keep the story from endlessly meandering. The film’s premise centers on thirty-something LA couple Jason and Sophie (Hamish Linklater and Miranda July), who have become stuck in their lives, careers, and relationship, though they do not realize this at first. In an attempt to move into the next phase of life, the couple decides to adopt a cat from a rescue shelter. Before completing the adoption, they must wait 30 days for the cat to finish its treatment cycle and be released to go home with them.
This 30-day wait is the film’s ticking clock. In a story that could otherwise take years or even decades to play out, we are now faced with a situation where the characters must confront their fears and anxieties about the future in a single month. As Jason and Sophie take introspective steps to examine what they want for themselves out of life, the film intermittently cuts to monologues of their soon-to-be adopted cat talking about its own dreams for the future. These monologues remind us that the clock is quickly running out. Every second that goes by brings us closer to the film’s resolution.
SOPHIE (as PAW PAW): How long was thirty days? It was turning out to be a little bit longer than say, for example, the day after tomorrow. Outside there was no time, no hours. Just alive, or not alive, or… bird. Now there was this new thing. Waiting, waiting for them to come get me. Waiting for my real life to begin. I learned to count the seconds. Now, now, now…
Without this time pressure, Jason and Sophie could easily have spent another decade together, not fully committing and not ready to abandon their failed relationship. The pending deadline on their calendar drives them to act impulsively and quickly, making decisions that force a reckoning.
SOPHIE: We’ll be forty in five years.
JASON: Uh. Forty is basically fifty and then after fifty, the rest is just… loose change.
SOPHIE: Loose change?
JASON: Like… not quite enough to get anything you really want.
Not every script needs a ticking clock. Some stories benefit from expansive time frames, where the characters must find the motivation to act when they feel ready. Hamlet comes to mind. But, the opposite is also true. There are many films that meander endlessly and would benefit tremendously from some urgency and momentum. We have all sat through three-and-a-half hour films, where the only ticking clock was the one on our wrist.