I just finished reading Dan Wells’ new novel, “Extreme Makeover”, which I knew going in was an apocalyptic thriller. But even had I not known, I would have almost immediately. Each chapter heading includes a countdown of how many days to the end of the world, starting at 276 days and working its way downward.
I can think of several reasons for this approach.
First, he may have wanted to make it very clear to anyone who might not have figured it out from the cover (which is pink) that this is apocalyptic fiction. His original title, which was eventually trimmed down, was “Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition”. Certainly that would have made it more clear what type of story this would be, but the chapter headers do that job as well.
Second, it teases the reader. The novel starts with a scientist in a cosmetics company revealing a new skin care product. Not very scary stuff. Some readers may even be turned off. But by introducing that teaser countdown the reader knows this skin care story is about to get serious, so stick around.
Third, the countdown is a common thriller element to build suspense. Ticking time bombs, ultimatums from powerful people, deadlines; all these add suspense when we know that the characters only have a limited time to do whatever it is they need to do. It’s potentially even more suspenseful when the reader knows the countdown is ticking but the characters do not. Hence we can spend most of the novel figuratively tearing our hair out because the characters don’t seem to realize they’re doomed!
Fourth, possibly, is the reader’s desire to call his bluff. Is he really serious? 198 Days to the end of the world? Or will the characters find a way to stop it before it’s too late. I mean, he wouldn’t really give it all away like that, right? I suspect most readers know deep down it’s for real, but there’s a part of them that will wonder if somehow the inevitable can’t be avoided.
True, countdowns are a trope, even a cliché. But they are also very effective and hard not to incorporate in some manner. Whether they are explicit, in the form of an actual time bomb under the table, or implicit, such as surviving until the sun comes up, knowing that there is a time limit that either helps or hurts the characters will ratchet up the tension.
It doesn’t even have to be the main element of the story. In Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” focuses primarily on main character Jack Ryan and the politics in which he finds himself embroiled, but all throughout the novel we are given glimpses of a terrorist group creating a nuclear bomb to use against the United States. That sub-plot, we know, is literally a ticking time bomb that could become the main plot at any time. It helps add a feeling of impending danger to keep the reader engaged, even when the main plotline may be less suspenseful.
Adding a sense of impending danger is an important element of storytelling. Like any tool, learning to use it well can yield big pay-offs for the writer and the reader. Used poorly, it can feel every bit like the clichéd trope it is. But when used well, you’ll grab your reader’s attention and hold it until they finally reach the end at 3 am, even though they have to get up for work in just a few hours.