I’ve been working my way through the Big Red Book (BRB) that supports the Open University‘s A215 Creative Writing course. I’ve just got to the Chapter on structure and it has made me think about how to get tension and conflict into my stories. In particular I was thinking about how to write the sort of scenes that make you want to keep on reading and keep people up at night to see what happens next. I also found this writing resource post on tension vs conflict in writing.

The thought process that these triggered reminded me of an incident from my late teens.

Back in July 1991 I spent a couple of weeks on the Isle of Lewis with my UOTC on annual camp. One night we were sent out on an orienteering exercise in the dark (it wasn’t dark for long, at that time of year there is only about three hours of darkness up there). There was a twist to this exercise, we had to collect parts of a military radio as we visited the grid references, and when we’d done that we needed to then put a call out to organise our lift home. Each group had four teams, with about eight officer cadets in each section. My section, which was leaderless (or leaderful depending on your point of view) had the task of collecting the furthest away radio. Two other sections needed to find their radio and RV in the middle somewhere. The fourth section was operating out of the camp we were staying in. The grandly titled RAF Stornoway was a collection of Nissen huts overlooking the runway at Stornoway airport. We would end up about 20km from the camp.

Stornoway Airport (former NATO base), Stornowa...
Stornoway Airport (former NATO base), Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being July it wasn’t overly cold, and we were dropped off about 2300 for the walk. There was 100% cloud cover, and a light wind. Despite only having a couple of hours to go round the course, there only being four collection points, all within a kilometre or so of the previous one, I carried my usual belt kit with water bottle, brew kit, first aid kit, snacks and a waterproof. Most of the rest of the section told me I was crazy to lug all that stuff when it wasn’t needed. There was about 20lbs of kit round my waist (I had dumped the bricks that kept it at 35lbs when I needed to keep the weight up for training runs).

We set off in the evening twilight and found the first cache quite quickly. The others followed suit, it took us about an hour to collect together the radio. I was designated as the signaller because I had the most experience, and so I assembled and carried it. By this time it was thoroughly dark, and we needed to find our way to a lay-by on a road where we could call for someone to come and pick us up. There were no landmarks visible because the cloud cover stopped the starlight from making the ground visible and the area is very rural. However we could see a lit farmhouse window in the middle distance, and we rationalised that it would be on the roadway. From there all we needed to do was follow the road to the lay-by. So off we set in a straight line to the house.

In the intervening space we crossed three wire fences and a burn. None of these were clear until we were a couple of metres or so from them, but all were visible enough when we were on top of them. When we were about half-way to the farmhouse we came across another fence, which we duly crossed. Almost as soon as we were over it there was a second fence in front of us. We noted that the ground underfoot was packed down and covered with animal tracks. It must be a track with a fence on both sides.

We crossed the second fence. As we went to carry on there was a third fence. When we were at the third fence we were unable to see the first fence, and could very hazily make out the fourth when we crossed it. At the fourth, there was a fifth, and then a sixth. I lost count of how many fences we crossed, but eventually we ran out of fences and then had a clear walk to the roadway. A daylight inspection showed us that we’d hit the middle of¬†some sheep pens. Had the visibility had been better we might have seen the edges and been able to go round.

The relevance of this to writing?

Well, I think there always ought to be some new obstacle or conflict every time you resolve something, but all the while there should be the central guiding light (like the farmhouse window) that directs the characters to their long term goal.




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