…Or the world will end.
I have a real issue with the technique of using an arbitrary countdown or deadline of some sort to drive dramatic action and propel a story forward. I don’t have any data on this, but I’d say probably one third to half the action movies out there use some form of this, and I really wish they wouldn’t. Allow me to explain my issues.
First of all, it’s usually unrealistic. Check out this kewl article by Becky Ferreira. It discusses scientific errors in the Avengers movie of 2012. Read the whole thing because it’s good. And yes, I’m a fan of that movie. After all, it’s a superhero movie, so science must break somewhere, right?
Slide seven talks about how the nuclear missile heading for Manhattan couldn’t possibly have a timed detonator. There’s no way it could reasonably be done, and in the real world this is never used for functional nuclear weapons.
This unreal-ness shows up in various other ways as well, such as some poison or disease that will kill everyone in “two days”, so of course the movie comes down to the last few seconds as the heroes find the antidote with three seconds to spare. That’s hogwash. Just ask any doctor. Poisons and diseases do incremental damage; it takes time to die, and you might die faster or slower than I do based on our own reactions.
Second of all, it’s totally impractical. Unless we’re all using cell phones on the same network, your watch will show different times than mine. So who’s watch is the one keyed to the end of the world? It’s not like the protagonists in these shows and books and movies synchronize their watches before racing off to save the plague victims, right? Perhaps if it’s a military-like flick they do, but that’s pretty rare to see. Besides, it still doesn’t change the “my watch is wrong” issue. What if they all set their watches to the wrong time? Then the world blows up three seconds before they think it should.
In regard to movies taking place in space, a related corollary of the above point is this: Space is really big, and even with a faster-than-light spaceship, time can’t be counted on to pass evenly everywhere. What I mean is that starship A orbiting one star, and starship B orbiting another star many light years away may be experiencing a slightly different rate of time due to things such as powerful gravitational fields or near-light speed travel, which would dilate time for the people traveling so fast, and not for the people moving much slower. This can be seen now when you get in a jet. Scientists have measured the passage of time on the ground and in a jet, and there is a small but measurable difference. The people on the jet don’t age quite as much as those remaining on the ground. So, having people whizzing through space would make a countdown totally pointless unless everything happened on the same ship.
My third point, however, is the strongest. In spite of the issues outlined above, I think using a countdown is just lazy story writing.
When I listen to music, I am always bothered by key changes. A key change is when the song seems to go just a little bit “higher”, almost always near the end, and then repeats the chorus of the song in this new, higher key. Just listen to pretty much any Barry Manilow song. No disrespect meant to Mr. Manilow, but I feel this is lazy song writing (Ok. There’s some disrespect there. I guess I don’t like his music very much).
Countdowns are the same for me with writing. I could tolerate the technique if it was used sparingly, but that’s not what happens. As a result of this excessive employment, even if you have a good reason to use a countdown, it’s going to bother me.
There are so many other ways to build tension, the greatest of which is the characters themselves. If you make it apparent that they feel the pressure, then you don’t need some arbitrary, external force to drive the tension.
If your story is totally dependent on a countdown, I suggest you try to re-write it. Unless you’re under a deadline…