by Lisa Black
Young people today must have no idea why children of the 1970s had an irrational fear of quicksand—the colloidal of saturated loose sand by which one would die slowly and inexorably without hope of rescue. Even though it is impossible for a human to actually drown in quicksand, any long-running television series had such an episode…along with the standard child lost in the woods, defusing a bomb, landing a plane, going undercover in a jail, haunted house, and found baby episodes. These plots popped up with such regularity that one could name the trope within the first five minutes. (FYI I’d ace a game show on this theme. You listening, Hollywood?)
No screenwriter, or writer, who wanted to keep their job has mentioned quicksand in at least forty years. But that doesn’t mean the mucky stuff will ever cease to haunt us. Because it’s not about the sand, it’s about the way it falls through the hourglass. It’s about time.
Every story is about time, you say. Every thriller has to have that race-against-the-clock quality.
The lost child has to be found before they die of exposure. The bomb will go off in five seconds. The informant must be found before the undercover agent has to shiv the ringleader in the exercise yard. The team must race through the jungle to find their colleague before they sink in the quicksand.
But it’s not a race for the guy in the quicksand. He has no choice but to sit still and think about his life choices.
And that’s what makes these episodes a little different from the standard thriller plots, and why they remain intriguing. Writers have moved on from quicksand: A safe room without an adequate air supply. A necklace bomb. Something futuristic as in Deep Space Nine where a crystal was slowly enveloping Kira. A plague ward or a room where a biohazard has escaped and the automatic protocols have locked all the doors—this will have large glass walls or a video feed to allow friends and family to share the inexorable hours.
This slow form of agony forces us to put ourselves in the place of that character. When we woke up, all was well. Maybe a recent argument still rankled, or we forgot to call Mom on her birthday, but that can be dealt with after work. Suddenly in a few short hours we have to ponder everything from who we married to whether we took those books back to the library as the minutes slip by.
As in any emergency, we must triage. No point worrying now about how we stole our little brother’s stuffed panda in the third grade—no, go directly to the top of the list. Never told our oldest that champion surfing instead of med school is just fine? Grab the phone. Want to leave your fortune to charity? Do a quick Zoom with your lawyer. Always wanted to zip line the Alps? Not an option, move on. Want to tell your partner that you’ve been in love with them since they landed that plane?
Ah, the stuff from which great stories have been made.
And hence, the attraction of the quicksand episode. It forces a character’s most secret wants and needs into a blinding beam of light and shows them, and everyone, who they really are. It accomplishes in an hour what otherwise might take a ten-season arc.
Perhaps we should all throw our characters in some quicksand now and then.
What would your character say/do if they had only an hour to live?