Timelock - specificity of deadline

For a story to be a Timelock, how precise and accurate does the deadline need to be?

I mean, if you have a story where the protagonist is trying to “be ready to run a marathon by June 17”, that seems like an obvious Timelock. But what if it’s more vague, but definitely still a time-dependent deadline, like a story about a family where the mother is diagnosed with aggressive cancer and given approx 6 weeks to live (but that’s just an estimate – could be 4 weeks or 10 weeks)?

I was thinking it might depend on what the story is about in that case:

  • If the story is about trying to mend a relationship with the mother, or learn how to be a family again, etc. before she dies that would be a Timelock. Within the story, the characters might feel like they’re running out of options – ways to mend relationships etc.
  • If the story is about trying to find a way to prevent or delay the illness itself, like searching for cure with alternative medicine or something, that might be an Optionlock, as there are a limited number of alternative approaches to try. Within the story, characters would feel they are running out of time to find the right approach before she dies.

Do those ideas sound correct or am I off base?

I have a story with a timelock that has the same feel: the protagonist infects themselves with an incomplete vaccination that will eventually kill her unless she finds the missing antigen - however, blood slows its effects and requires the sacrifice of her team/family members of which there are only so many. While there’s definitely the feel of an optionlock, once we get down to the last person and there’s a handoff and all options are exhausted, it’s still timelock bound to find the antigen because the clock in essence has started over.

I think it would be appropriate to take a look at the analysis of Juno. An ‘obvious’ timelock would be the end of the pregnancy, which would be 9-10 months, right? But it’s an optionlock.

For me personally, an interesting way to look at the limit is to see what would happen if you artificially extend time or options.
If you reset the timer on a timebomb, I have no idea when the climax is going to be. I mean, how do I know you won’t do it again? And again. And again.
If you introduce a new murder suspect, how do I know you won’t do that again?

@JBarker’s example is interesting. If you say at the start that the protagonist has X hours to live without the slowdown, and Y hours to live with all her options’ sacrifices… then Y is the actual limit. If you then introduce another person who could donate blood, then how do I know that you won’t do that again?

It’s all about the maximum, the actual limit. If you say that a character has at most 10 weeks to live if we don’t cure her, then that would seem like a Timelock. The same thing if you’re “only” trying to mend a relationship with that character. Even if you say she’s probably only going to live 6 weeks, and the 10 weeks are very unlikely, 10 weeks would still be the maximum.

If you don’t establish a maximum, then I’m not sure how it would even count as a limit.

There was a literal handoff, the last person taking the virus and incomplete vaccination to end the other person’s suffering (“carrying a torch”). In the context of the story, there are very few other survivors and the notion of “could donate blood” is predicated on the willingness of both parties (giver and receiver). So to answer your question, you simply don’t introduce any other options (survivors) - it’s by design to work in conjunction with the story and MC’s problem/solution, the story’s world, theme, etc. Ultimately the options only delay the timelock, they don’t provide a resolution for it so the tension will continue after the delay.

Interesting discussion guys. @bobRaskoph I think I agree with your idea about needing a maximum for it to be a valid Timelock. I think that’s related to what I meant by precision – in a story about a time bomb you might want to communicate the minutes and seconds, but in other stories a precision of days or weeks might be good enough.

I think I’m starting to understand this better. Dramatica is a tool based on Author’s Intent, and authors know the deadline to whatever precision is required for the story.
How precise we are in communicating the deadline to the audience is a matter of storytelling, not structure. But we still have to do it well for it to be an enjoyable story – if the audience gets the wrong idea of the limit, they will be confused. I think it’s okay if things are left intentionally vague (“Crap, we know the bomb will go off on Tuesday, but not what time!”) as long as the audience doesn’t get an actual wrong idea (Act 4: “That’s funny, it’s past midnight on Tuesday and it never went off. Maybe the terrorists said Wednesday?”; cue audience let-down).

So I think what I’m saying is it’s important to be accurate but not necessarily precise. i.e. the actual value of the Timelock deadline should be in the range of time communicated to audience, but it’s okay for that range to be large.

@JBarker Your story with the Timelock delay is interesting, I’m still gathering my thoughts on that!

The trick is aligning all these parts to work together. My MC goal is to keep his counterparts alive without having to see them suffer. The story goal, however, is to save humanity. Conflict arises from how how he and his wife decide to go about doing it, his wife infecting herself causing other’s to sacrifice themselves while she suffers (deteriorates) for the greater good. Each sacrifice (option) only delays the timelock, which a) increases his personal angst and b) decreases the options left. As it’s thematically a story about faith and sacrifice (people don’t self-sacrifice for things they don’t believe in), he literally must take a leap of faith when he’s the only option left and carry the partial cure in hopes of finding the antigen before time runs out (he succumbs to the virus’s effects and all hope is lost.) While this decision impacts the MC resolve and judgement, the outcome is still in question which is why I see it as timelock.

The two forces really dove-tail into one another as there are no more options available - trying to save his wife by giving her more of his own blood would slow them down and only delay the outcome, this while his life is in jeopardy: hoards of infected are surrounding him and he’s running out of time. If he doesn’t carry the torch, so to speak, he will die and render all their sacrifices meaningless.

Wow, that story sounds really cool! Thanks for sharing so much detail.

Do you communicate the “upper limit”, i.e. the most they will reasonably be able to delay, to the audience at all? (even if the audience has to work it out themselves?)

“Running out of people to donate blood” seems like an Optionlock to me. But on the other hand, if you had a ticking-time-bomb that had 10 buttons on it, each of which added 5 minutes if pressed (giving more time to defuse but ultimately setting a maximum time), I think it would still be a Timelock … hmm!

There’s a thread around here where I posted the entire creation of the script along with some of the feedback from the very first draft - some people found it useful to see someone go through step by step as it was my first script written using Dramatica.

Here’s the link: Far End of the Black script creation

Thanks very much @JBarker – that thread is illuminating in many different ways!

You’re welcome! Glad it was helpful.

Nope. Subject matter is independent of this dynamic.

For example #1: Trying to mend a relationship with a mother

TIMELOCK A - DEADLINE: Sam’s mother is due to be executed for murdering his father at midnight on June 1st. Time is running out for his family to reconcile his family with his mother before she is gone for good.

TIMELOCK B - QUANTITY OF TIME: Sam is given one week for his family to reconcile with his murderous mother before she is executed.

OPTIONLOCK A - LIMITED OPTIONS: Sam has a limited number of opportunities to meet with his incarcerated mother for his family to reconcile before she is executed.

OPTIONLOCK B - LIMITED SPACE: Sam’s family road trip gives his family a limited space (distance) to reconcile with his mother as they travel with her from the family home in New Jersey to the federal prison at Riker’s Island in Queens, NY where she will be permanently incarcerated.

1 Like

Thanks Chris. I think I see what you are saying – it’s not the subject matter that determines the Story Limit, but rather, it’s whether the pursuit of the story’s goal is limited by time or by space/options.

So I guess, to answer my original question, the time limit can precise or imprecise. As long as it’s actually a limit of time and not a limit of options, it’s still a Timelock.

Yes, and the fact that it is a LIMIT that forces the confrontation/climax.

I hope this isn’t too far off from the topic.

What about self-imposed limits? As in, what if the characters make a bet or challenge. Is this limit strong enough for the story? Or would the audience ask “It’s just a bet. Just drop it.”

I would think self-imposed limits would be just fine as long as they went with the story. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen more than a few minutes of this one, so I could be wrong, but don’t the characters in American Pie have a self-imposed limit of losing their virginity by the end of high school or something? That was pretty popular with a certain crowd.

Seems like there should be more examples of movies with self-imposed limits, but I’m drawing a blank at the moment. A real life example of a self-imposed limit would be how when Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot were trying to make it, they gave themselves 5 years to make a sale. I’d accept that sort of a limit in a movie.

I suppose the reason for the self imposed limit would be where an audience would accept or reject it. In the case of losing virginity before high school is out, it’s just a challenge with a time limit. In that case I assume the audience doesn’t think that if the characters fail they’ll never try to lose their virginity again. There’s no reason to reject it because it’s just a silly challenge.

In the example of trying to sale a script within 5 years, if it’s just a challenge, then those guys can just give themselves more time. If it’s a need to start a real and lucrative career by a certain age, or the idea that anyone who is good at it should be able to make a sale within 5 years, then maybe the consequences make the self imposed limit more acceptable.

Hi Bob, cool question. I agree with @Gregolas; I think the key to making the limit strong enough is that there have to be real Consequences to not achieving the bet/challenge by the timeframe, and dropping out carries consequences too (either the same or different consequences storytelling-wise, but of the same Type). So “just dropping it” would be akin to just giving up on trying to find the time-bomb, or dropping out of the election, or giving up trying to reconcile with the mom on death row… Basically the same as giving up on any Timelock story.

Thank you for your thoughts.

I think the hard part about this is to create consequences that are bad enough that your characters don’t drop it, but light enough that you don’t wonder why in the world they agreed to the bet/challenge in the first place.
I probably lean to heavily on the soft side. I’ve only ever made bets where the loser had to admit to being wrong. I’m still in the middle of a bet, in fact, one that started when I was 13 will end when I’m 30, if I don’t lose before that. To lose, I have to do a specific thing; to win, all I have to do is wait and not do that thing.
I made that bet with my older sister. Me being right and my sister being wrong was a big deal when I was a teenager. Me being wrong and my sister being right, as well. But now I’m in my mid-twenties, so it doesn’t really matter. So, if I were to try and make a story out of this (which I’ve tried before, even before knowing about Dramatica), I would have to change a few things about this. Maybe shorten the limit to end at 16 instead of 30, and have the victory condition be a bit more than just waiting it out.
The thing about this bet is that, whenever I mention it to people, I get a lot of interesting reactions, because that thing I would have to do to lose is “normal.”

The reason I thought about this question in the first place is because of a story I thought up recently where three teenagers decide to try a certain, rather inhibiting thing for a week, which requires all three’s permission to proceed. If one drops out, all the others have to as well.They do it, they have some trouble, the week is over. In this case, the only real consequence for dropping it would be disapproval… which could mean a lot for teenagers, but I don’t know. I’ll have to work on it.

I think potential disapproval can be a huge motivator. It would be good to find examples of stories like this, I’m sure there are plenty but I’m drawing a blank right now. Maybe part of the problem is that we often want to tell stories where you need to learn to ignore or accept others’ disapproval in order to succeed. So the disapproval would show up more as a Symptom or Cost (or maybe Preconditions etc.) rather than Consequences.

Although there was money on the table, in the classic Seinfeld episode The Contest I think “bragging rights” was a big reason for trying to win and not dropping out. (Not that Kramer cared much about that…)

The STORY Limit is not about a character’s choice. It is what drives the story to its climax. It provides an actual limit to the “size” of the story. If it can be changed, it is not a Story Limit. It is one of the many “givens” an author establishes to define the closed system of a grand argument story, and as such becomes part of the context within which the story develops.