Onward - The Return of the Story Limit

Seeing as how most of us are stuck inside with nothing more to do than read and write stories, how about we kick up the ol’ “Is a sunset an Optionlock or Timelock?” argument.

Pixar’s Onward, while in theaters still here in the U.S., is now available for purchase in iTunes. I was going to wait until it was “free” April 3 on Disney+, but then thought it would be an even better signal to send to studios that we’d much rather download first-run movies at home (I don’t really want to wait until November to see the next James Bond movie!)

While I can’t say it was worth the price of admission, it does literally bring up this same exact Storypoint of a sunset/sunrise and the Story Limit…would love to hear what everyone thinks!


I am getting pressure here at home to watch this movie. Likely will do so in the next two days!

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What time does the sun go down? :wink:


When the trailing edge slips below the horizon. There is a specific instance of that, just because we have difficulty articulating that moment and location changes it, doesn’t mean it isn’t exact.

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Yes, but it also matters where YOU are as to what ‘time’ that happens (GMT, PST, EST, etc.). Jim was asking about timelock/optionlock, so I was pointing out that sundown is not a timelock. Your description perfectly describes why.


I think I have a new understanding of Spacelock.

One kind of Optionlock is traveling from A to B, like in a road movie. We tend to think of this like “they stop in 5 cities, so there are 5 options,” because they stop and do something in the cities.

But what if they didn’t have to stop, they literally just had to drive through the cities? (And, if you have to have them do something, then their E-ZPass has to log every city.)

And what if they had to maintain a specific speed?

Then they’d be crossing a space with invariable speed and it would still be an Optionlock.

Could you calculate “Oh, they’ll get from NYC to SF in exactly 70 hours and 4 seconds.” That would be true and specific and all that. But the requirement isn’t to make the drive in 70 hours and 4 seconds; that’s incidental. The requirement is to drive from A to B at a set speed.

Just like the sun.


Every time this comes up, I always think of the Disney Channel show Phineas & Ferb.
Namely, the special episode “Summer Belongs to You.”

@MWollaeger’s post makes me think of that episode even more so, as it describes it almost exactly.

The kids intend on chasing the sun over the summer solstice to create “the longest day ever”. And, as would be expected, they nearly don’t make it. They get stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean as the sun sets. The way the episode is drawn out, I feel it so clearly indicates how a sunset is a Spacelock, especially since the sunset limit and other elements of dwindling options support each other in the story, instead of stepping on one another.

Also, there’s even a character who exclaims at the beginning that there are “exactly 24 hours in the day and that’s it. You can’t change that.” Obviously, it being Disney, they succeed and manage to beat the sun. In effect, this means that they change the amount of time the sunset represents, and however long that might have been doesn’t matter so much, only that keep up with the spatial traversal

Even though there is a theoretical time limit against the story, it doesn’t matter. Given the requirements and limitations within the story, as presented, time is extremely malleable. (Though, by any external indication otherwise, it “shouldn’t” be.)

At the highest level, that would seem to be the purpose of Timelock vs Spacelock. Even the names of the dynamics suggest the idea: It would seem that choosing one as rigid (that is, locked) frees the other, in that particular story.


Just to play devil’s advocate…

There is no specific precision required for a Timelock’s limit, as far as I understand it. In one story it might be down to the minute (4:00 pm local time), but in another it might be something like “four days”. I suppose the right kind of story could have it down to the millisecond.

Now, for the four-day Timelock story, if you translated it into a language where the word for day was “sun-turnings” does this mean that, in this language only, it’s an Optionlock? That doesn’t seem right; structure should be independent of medium including language.

Similar argument goes for moving the setting to where no one has clocks or calendars. Does how the characters track a day change a Timelock into an Optionlock?

Now take an alternate argument: a ticking bomb that’s going to go off in exactly one hour and destroy the universe. The characters are trying to defuse it. 59:59. 59:58… Sounds like a timelock. Except then one of the characters takes the bomb in a ship that quickly accelerates to near-lightspeed, buying everyone piles of time due to relativity. They figure out how to defuse it before the spaceship comes back, and only half an hour has passed for the bomb.

Definitely not a Timelock – the time limit appeared to be fixed, but it wasn’t.

Based on all this, I think the following factors are required to determine whether a limit is a Timelock:

  • If the story/storymind (usually via characters) can affect the timing of the limit that brings on the story’s conclusion, it’s not a Timelock. A Timelock’s limit must be fixed.

  • It depends how it’s illustrated – are they paying attention to the sun’s passage through space to watch for the approaching sunset? Or fixated on the exact time that TimeAndDate.com told them sunset is for their city, and using their watches?


This is basically what they do in Ex Machina.

What exactly constitutes “a day” is not really specific, nor is the arrival/departure of the helicopter.

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Except, your post doesn’t really go against what I was trying to say. In fact, I read the entire post as validating what I was trying to argue. It says the same thing in a different way.

Except that this:

is precision.

Unfortunately, in day-to-day parlance, “precision” and “accuracy” are mixed around. In technical terms, though, precision means able to repeat something consistently, while accuracy means matching it to “the true value”, whatever that might be.

I feel like what you describe is that a Timelock needs to be precise, but not necessarily accurate. Though, I’m not entirely sure whether I believe that it doesn’t need both to within some limit. (Especially now that I read back on the post, and see that it could be seen as either.)

All that said, I’ve never cared for stories that use the obvious Timelock, so… Grain of salt?

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Depends on how the story measures a sun-turning. Even without words for time, as humans this audience should still be able to handle timelocks. They should still be able to take the perspective of a numbered sequence passing independently of space. If the audience doesn’t have words for or a concept of time, then perhaps the audience would translate this to an optionlock and misunderstand its meaning to the story. Or maybe they would have difficulty understanding how a sun-turning is a number and not the place where the sun meets the horizon and think the story lacks a meaningful limit. Or maybe something else. And yet that story, regardless of the language of the audience or author, is still coming to end when time runs out.

Depends on how the story sees it, doesn’t it? The story could take the perspective of the characters not on the ship and say that they’ve found a way to stretch out time in which case you a have a space lock. Or the story could take the perspective of the character on the ship in which case the other character hasn’t stretched out time but found a way to cover much more space in that time in which case you have a time lock (presumably the bomb is defused but as time is still running, the bomb could still be reset to go off, story can’t end until that time runs out).

As long as it’s treated as a moment of time, right? Doesn’t matter as long as we know the story ended because we reached day five.

Does the story end when they maintain it for a certain distance, or a certain time?

Just thinking out loud here. Speed isnt space or time. it’s a rate of movement usually described as a measure of space compared against a measure of time. But it could just as easily…well, er, just as accurately, I guess…be described by the increased energy an object carries as it nears the speed of light if one did not want to use measures of space and time. Of course the only reason I can think of to do that would be in an attempt to clarify whether your story had a spacelock or a timelock. :smile:


Sorry @Hunter! I cross-posted with you. After I saw your post I should have said something, because you’re right, I did notice that you were making the same points.

I also ended up not going against what earlier posts were saying very much either … I had initially thought I disagreed but in the process of writing my post and organizing my thoughts, I came around to clearer thinking.

Regarding precision vs. accuracy, I was going back to my days as a physics major in university. In the sciences, precision has to do with the amount of uncertainty in the measurement, and accuracy describes how close the measurement is to the true value. So you could have a very precise measurement of say 10cm plus/minus 1 nanometre, which is not very accurate if the thing you measured is actually 5cm. Meanwhile, the measurement of 4.9cm plus/minus 1.0cm is much less precise, but much more accurate.

So all I meant there is how precisely is the time limit defined – to the millisecond vs. minute vs. day vs. month…


Just watched it. Just the movie I needed, so I say totally worth the price of admission.

When do we start the discussion? Tomorrow when the sun goes down, or 18 hours from now? Your choice.


I guess we’re moving on to Fight Club so I’m going to add that I think the creators of the movie also don’t know if the sun setting is a timelock or an optionlock, based on how they introduce it and then wrap it up.

Importantly, this has no bearing on the effect of the Limit. At least not on me when I watched it.


We don’t have to do Fight Club - we could start with this one. Much more cheerier to be sure. I actually missed the first 15 min. so I’ll have to watch it again, but I just liked the idea of the Limit, and thought it would be a good place to start.

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We should wait until it’s free. I won’t have a chance to watch it again before the rental runs out.


Just got early access! Watching it later today. I do agree that we should wait to discuss though, for those who need to wait until it’s available on Disney+.


It has a bad case of the spacetimes. But I think it’s a spacelock that feels like it’s running out of time.

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Totally agree.

Doesn’t help that they start a 24hr clock tho…

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No, but it seems like they only look at the watch to talk about how they’re running out of time. And I don’t remember seeing it at all when the sun actually goes down…though to be fair, I don’t recall seeing the sun go down either. Just the father fading away.

But if you look at everything in the story and not just the end, the tendency of the story is for things to come to an end because of space. Not only is the sun setting, but they run out of gas, the rope falls off, Ian masters a series of spells (extending their options), they come to the end of the water, they follow the map all the way back to where they started, and Ian has a list of options that he goes to check off and realizes he got to do all of them…just not how he thought.

And I can’t think of anything else in the story that came to an end because of time or felt like it had to be done in time. Like, if the story limit were time, maybe the Manticore’s Tavern could have been visited during happy hour and she couldn’t help not because she was afraid of a lawsuit but because she still had 49 more minutes before her shift ended, or maybe they could have had to rush to the Pawn Shop because it closes at 6, or instead of using everything he’d learned in previous spells to do the hardest ones Ian would have had to have trained for a certain amount of time first, or could only use the staff for a certain amount of time before it stopped working without a new Phoenix gem.

Not that it couldn’t be a timelock and still have them running out of gas, etc, but with the story limit being somewhat confused, I think you can look at the tendency of the rest of the story and make a pretty good case for space.