Sense of Urgency Is Like a Splinter

sense of urgency is like a splinter

No, not the rat.

It wasn’t until discussing the either or mentality a few months ago that I realized that I had somehow overlooked talking about sense of urgency (In a writing blog – how is that even possible?). Immediately, I put it on my list for later. Today, later is here, and it comes with a simile: sense of urgency is like a splinter.

Sense of Urgency:
Importance, Attention, & Deadlines

Talking about a sense of urgency has grown more and more popular not only in writing but also in business. Books must have a strong sense of urgency to be more gripping and fast-paced, and people must have a strong sense of urgency to make their businesses take off.

Ok. But what does that mean?

What Is a Sense of Urgency?

Well, in business, it’s your motivation and your level or intensity of caring. The elusive emotion drives you to get tasks done and tackle more. In years past, it would’ve been called “ambition.”

In writing, it’s fairly similar; however, you (the reader) are not the one feeling a sense of urgency – the main character is. Yes, we as readers respond to the main character’s need to succeed at a goal, but it isn’t our need (although, for extreme fans or those with major empathy, it can be hard to tell the difference…).

Uh-huh. And it’s like a splinter how?

Gotcha covered. It’s time to take this simile to the next level: the analogy. Don’t worry – all silliness aside, the comparison does actually make sense.

What Do Splinters and Sense of Urgency Have in Common?

I’m glad you asked. Here are a few of the items I’ve put together. Before I get into them, however, I’d like you to stop a moment to think about the splinters you’ve had over the years. From least to most memorable. Think about the irritation, the random pain when you first discovered it was there (How do they get there without being noticed?!), the intense concentration of operating on yourself to get it out – you know, the whole shebang. Got it in your head? Ok. Here we go.

Sense of urgency is like a splinter because both…

  1. Vary in size and importance (A small wood splinter versus bamboo under the fingernails. Big difference. Oh, and ever get a metal splinter? You know, the type Bruce Willis pulled out of his arm to use as a lockpick in Die Hard with a Vengeance? I have. Believe me, a normal splinter’s got nothing on that!)
  2. Hold your attention (even when you’re trying to focus on other things)
  3. Have a deadline (However vague – such as “before I type anymore because ow” or “before gangrene sets in, and I lose this finger”)
  4. Grow in importance the longer the issue remains (AKA, the closer you get to the deadline or the more side problems crop up because of it. And you thought it had your attention before it was red and swollen! Ha!)

Yes, a sense of urgency does all of those things.

Take #1, for instance. When a teacher tells you that your book needs a sense of urgency, you think of the main goal – the problem to be resolved in the climax. But there are plenty of little problems and conflicts that need a sense of urgency, too. A scene where a character has no driving need to do anything is a scene that’s dead in the water. Even if it’s as simple or small as a need to entertain themselves while waiting for someone, the character always has some motivation.

And, don’t forget, the character’s the one driving the plot, right?

As far as number 2, a sense of urgency is a splinter in your brain. Instead of pain distracting you, it’s ideas or a feeling that you need to get it done. It’s like having trouble concentrating at work because you have a million things to do at home. Or how artists tends to find ideas for their art in everything – because their art is never far from their minds!

Oh, and as far as #3, if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll understand the next sentence perfectly: you can’t have a sense of urgency without a deadline. If you can wait to do it tomorrow, why would you do it now? What’s in it for you?

The ticking clock is a cliche because it works. Having a deadline automatically creates at least some sense of urgency. In fact, the only way the ticking clock doesn’t work as a tool is if the character doesn’t care about the consequences.

Speaking of consequences, that’s also a way of heightening a sense of urgency, and it’s part of why the deadline is important as well as the variation idea (and #4). What’s the difference between homework due tomorrow and stopping a villain from destroying the Earth? Well, other than genre or trope, namely the scale of the consequences.

That’s how you differentiate between your conflicts and increase the sense of urgency for the climax. As a general rule, the main conflict should not only have more deadly or frightening consequences, but those consequences should also increase or get worse the closer the character gets to the climax. That can be simply because the result will be much worse if not taken care of before the deadline, or it could be because the situation grows increasingly complicated, resulting in worse dangers.

It’s particularly powerful if the actions that the main character takes to stop the dangers actually increases them (or, at least, the ancient Greek writers thought so…).

Hubris aside, though, that’s how motivation is like a splinter.

Speaking of which, *may your personal sense of urgency to write be like a long, nasty metal splinter that aggravates you so thoroughly you have no choice but to face it down (AKA: I hope you write.)

*A little Ray Bradbury-esque, but I meant it as a blessing.

The Either Or Mentality as a Plot Device

Yes No Either or Mentality Plot Device

Good. Bad. Black. White.

From the typical image of your future as a fork in the road to dating options or even politics (Sorry. Too soon.), humans have a very strong tendency to lock themselves into an either or mindset. Either I can do this, or I can do that. While that’s generally a habit I’d recommend avoiding in real life (when possible), its popularity means that using the either or mentality as a plot device can add conflict and realism in one fell swoop.

Adding Conflict & Realism with the Either Or Mentality

Provide Two Obvious Options

The trick to adding conflict realistically with the either or mindset is to make sure that there are only two obvious options. If there’s a glaringly obvious third choice that Ricky isn’t even thinking about, then it’s hard to empathize when Ricky’s agonizing over the other two options.

Of course, when you’re used to thinking outside the box (or outside the either or mindset), then narrowing the options down to 2 may seem like a gargantuan task. And you may not be wrong. Trying to direct someone’s focus through writing is a bit of a crap shoot at any time.

But, don’t worry, the other tactics will help.

Characterization, Characterization, Characterization

Make the character’s point of view and voice strong, and the character’s focus will pull the reader’s focus along like a spotlight on a stage. Especially in a limited voice or first person where we only know what the character knows – and occasionally not all of that.

That means that the two options you’re focusing on have to be the only ones the character’s aware of. Even a half-mentioned possibility 4 chapters back can detract from that, so you have to make sure that any hints about an additional option have to be fragmented enough that the reader can forgive the character for not putting it together until the last minute. Or after it’s too late.

Pacing & Sense of Urgency

It’s a bit startling to realize that over a year in on this writing blog, and I haven’t talked about pacing or sense of urgency before (I’ll have to fix that.). But since both titles are pretty literal, I’m confident any of you who aren’t already familiar with them will catch on pretty quickly (in fact, you probably already have).

In short, the tactics that give a sense of urgency are what make you feel like the problem is important and needs to be solved now. Pacing is how quickly the scene moves, and it plays a big role in creating a sense of urgency.

Faster pacing combined with a strong sense of urgency can pull the reader through the scene too quickly to second guess the number of options. If characterization is a spotlight pulling your attention, pacing and sense of urgency put that spotlight in front of a racing rollercoaster, yanking you through so fast you don’t dare look away from the light for fear you’ll miss something.

The ticking clock of the decision’s deadline combined with the importance of the decision are part of what rouses people’s emotions to lock them into the either or mentality in the first place, so keeping that sense of urgency will help you with the characterization and add realism, as well.

After all, making a choice between two options isn’t much of a plot conflict if the decision isn’t important or on a time limit.

Outside Forces

Another way to narrow down the options to two is to put outside forces into play. In this scenario, when given a choice of A or B, the character desperately tries C, D, E, F, etc. but is foiled at every turn.

An unexpected storm wipes out one way of escape, someone misunderstands the instructions or panics and does exactly what they weren’t supposed to do (like put down the portcullis and jam it, locking everyone inside the dangerously haunted castle), the enemy already foresaw that plan and took steps to prevent it, and so on.

The outside forces can be forces of nature, supernatural forces, societal pressure, acts of enemy aggression – basically anything you can think of from the list of character vs. ___ . The hard part is to orchestrate it all so that it doesn’t feel contrived. That takes quite a bit of work, and smart enemies and plotting against your characters can definitely help.

If you put these techniques together, odds are good you can lock your character into an either or mentality without having readers raise too much of a stink. Of course, then you have to figure out how to get the character out of it again, but that’s a problem for later.

For now, you’re ready to get started. What either or mentality will you use to derail your character’s plans?