Posts Tagged ‘The Martian’

“The purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene.”
Screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama)
Let’s Schmooze blog

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The last movie I saw (Eye in the Sky) was full of anticipation, and that was set up by the ticking clock scenario. Time was of the essence for the entire film. While I have touched on the ticking clock concept in pervious posts, I realized I had not done a post dedicated to unpacking the concept in detail—so here it is:

The ticking clock is simply a device writers use to create a sense of urgency—in both the characters and the audiences. It’s not found in every film and TV show, but there are plenty of examples over the years of stories across all genres that show it’s something worthwhile to have in your toolbox.

Sometimes the ticking clock is used in a single scene and other times it basically spans the entire film.

Two examples that come quickly to mind are Back to the Future (1985) and Taken (2008). Situations where major stakes are on the line if such and such doesn’t happen within in a specific time frame.

It doesn’t have to be a literal clock ticking down (though it can be) but it must be clear to those involved (and those watching) that there will be dire consequences if some terms aren’t met before a specific deadline.

“An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie”
Stephen Cannell

“A time endpoint, also known as a ticking clock, is a technique in which you tell the audience up front that the action must be completed by a specific time. It is most common in action stories (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen).”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

“Always helps to have a ticking clock. In Millions, the two boys have only a limited amount of time before the fortune in cash they found is worthless, as all currency is about to be converted to Euros. They are forced to solve their problem before the suitcase of money is useless.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks

Here are other films with ticking clocks:

127 Hours —A solo adventurer must find a way to get his arm released from being wedged in a rock crevasse before he dies from lack of food and water.
48 Hours
The  Hunt for Red October
United 93
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
The African Queen
and more recently The Martian.

Here’s what the ticking clock looks like on the page from the Drew Goddard written screenplay The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s book). This scene starts at page 16 after astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survives being left behind on Mars.

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Even terrific indie films Winter’s Bone, Buried, and Ida have ticking clocks. Tv programs like Breaking Bad and Empire have ticking clocks related to the health issues of the lead characters.

Like any technique there are times when its use can seem heavy handed and forced—even a cliche. But that doesn’t negate that in the right hands it is a time trusted (pun intended) way to produce a sense of urgency.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks and his troop are charged with finding (and returning) Private Ryan before he’s killed on the battlefield? That qualifies as a ticking clock. As does finding (and killing) the shark in Jaws before it wrecks the town’s tourist economy.  And, now that I think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T. and Schindler’s List all make uses of ticking clocks. So if Spielberg doesn’t shy away from ticking clocks why should you?

Related Posts:
The Bomb Under the Table 

Scott W. Smith




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This post first ran in October 2012 under the title, Jumping the Shark:

“Fonzie began as a secondary character with very few lines. When he started drawing so much focus, we had to adjust the scripts.”
Garry MarshallHappy Days creator

You can’t base a month of posts on Hollywood legend Garry Marshall without touching on one of the most popular TV shows he created—Happy Days. Especially, when his book is called My Happy Days in Hollywood. The show was not only a hit for 11 seasons in its first run, but helped coined one of the most popular phrases in television:

“People come up and ask me all the time about the phrase jumping the shark and if I find it offensive. The expression comes from a late episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie uses water skis to literally jump over a shark in the ocean. It was certainly not one of the shows I am most proud of. But I love the phrase jumping the shark and the way people use it today to signify a TV series nearing the end of its run. In 2009 I did a full stage tour of the Happy Days musical, which I wrote with Paul Williams and produced with Happy Days executive producers Bob Boyett and Tom Miller. One of the big jokes in the musical is when someone notices Fonzie is in a bad mood and says, ‘He hasn’t been the same since he jumped the shark.'”
Garry Marshall
My Happy Days in Hollywood (written with Lori Marshall)

I was in high school when that first aired and spent many happy days watching Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, Tom Bosley and the rest of the gang. Tomorrow we’ll look at the difficulties Marshall had in getting Happy Days produced, and why it was finally given a shot three years after it was written. When using the phrase jumping the shark in connection to Happy Days, it’s important to point out that Happy Days was one of the most viewed shows of its era.

P.S. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “jumping the shark” was created by Jon Hein, but if you dig a little deeper and read the LA Times article by Fred Fox Jr. you’ll see what Hein did was popularize the phrase that first came from his roommate at the University of Michigan, Sean Connolly, back in 1987 when they were sitting around drinking beer and talking about TV programs. For what it’s worth, 30 million people watched the original Jumping the Shark episode when it first aired on September 20, 1977. May all of your less than successful ideas be seen by 30 million people.

And that episode was actually in season five. Jumping the Shark doesn’t necessarily mean a show is dying. Happy Days had a six-year run after Fonzie and his leather jacket and hopped on a pair of water skis. After binge watching both Friday Night Lights and Mad Men in the past year, there were plenty of places where they both jumped the shark—both not only survived, but continued to find their way. The weekly demands on television writers and producers is tremendous—so give them a little grace before you dig their graves.

10/19/15 update: There’s a nice Fonzie reference in The Martian (starring Matt Damon), which as of this writing is still playing in theaters and has made over $300 million in the first 17 days of its release.

Related link: jumpingtheshark.com

Scott W. Smith

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