A Heartwarming #WritingChallenge!

WritingChallenge imageHi everyone,

At Heartwarming, we’re always on the lookout for stories with high stakes, where the characters must risk giving up what they want most in order to love each other. The strongest books weave together both internal and external conflicts to ramp up the action, emotion and romantic tension.

This weekend’s challenge is:

Show us how you’d raise the stakes in a scenario we’ve come up with!

Your hero and heroine are on an overnight camping trip with a class of rowdy middle-schoolers. It’s close to dusk, the campground is nowhere in sight, and the air seems to be getting smoky…when suddenly they realize two kids are missing. What happens next?

Post a couple paragraphs in the comments. What is the worst thing that could happen to these characters? How do their motivations drive them to act and react? What is at risk for each of them? The higher the stakes, the better!

Heartwarming editors will check in on Monday to see what you’ve come up with and offer some feedback.

Happy Writing!

The SYTYCW Editors x

57 replies on “A Heartwarming #WritingChallenge!”

“Briana Wallis and Ed Morrison” gasped Polly, frantically scanning the gaggle of twelve year olds who simmered with pent up excitement before her. She didn’t need the class register, these kids were as well known to her as her own family. “They’re gone, Ben”
Polly’s colleague, Ben Harper, emerged from under the minibus’s engine hood, wiping his hands on a rag and looking, Polly fervently hoped, as if he knew what he was doing, frowned. “Well, they can’t be far, Poll, we’ve only been here ten minutes”
“Don’t underestimate Ed’s ability to find trouble” she muttered darkly. Raking a hand through her red curls she gazed around desperately. The van seemed to have broken down right in the middle of nowheresville, it was getting dark, and two kids were gone. Suddenly she became aware of Ben’s face darkening with concern. Following his gaze she gave a cry of despair as she saw a cloud of black smoke wafting from over the hill. “Ben!” She screamed. “The children!”

Hi Sarah, I like the introduction of the possible fire, that’s a great way to raise the stakes. Also, your use of phrases like “were as well known to her own family” are very good at giving the reader a quick but satisfying description of the character. Right away I feel as if I know and like this heroine. Thanks!

‘Lee and Lianna. I might have known. If anyone at all decided to buck the trend, ignore the rules and thumb their noses at us it’s those two.’ Maura groaned and ignored Ruari,so close to her his breath warmed her neck. ‘That pair are going to be the two kids who send me screaming into the night…’ Maura Millen paused and did her best to smile, even though she felt like crying. Lianna was her cousin. ‘Or to a tropical island to drink rum and ignore the world.’
Ruari Scobie, head of department and as far as she was concerned the one guy who considered her incapable of doing her job properly and would no doubt prefer a fifty something martinet waving a flag and a rule book not a twenty something with a sense of, “well it could have been me.” grimaced.
‘For once I can deny it’s my fault’ Maura said with a snap. That bonfire is b all to do with me.’

Now he looked at her as if she’d crawled out form under a particularly slimy stone. ‘You know something, Flora? That chip on your shoulder is big enough to create a tsunami on Loch Lomond.’
She gaped at him as he shook his head, and for goodness sake with something like pity in his expression. ‘They’ve gone to the chippy in the village. Thirteen fish suppers and a chicken. I ordered you haddock, gluten free.’

Dear Joanne,

That’s a good twist at the end re the dinner. Turns like that, even small ones, keep the reader’s attention throughout as you never know what might be coming next. We’re always hoping authors will do more of that. The heroine’s take on what’s happened felt real and that her thoughts are what people might actually think, i.e. a comment like drink rum and ignore the world. Thanks!

“I counted eight heads, Dan.” Kim panicked and swung her backpack off. Her hands were trembling as she searched her bag for her flashlight, noting the granola bars and trail mix. There was enough if they needed it. “You take the rest of the kids up the path to the camp and I’ll go back and follow the trail.” She worried her lip as tears threatened. Her heart was barely keeping up with her breathing, but they had to find those kids. They were out there alone doing who knows what. She just hoped they weren’t responsible for all this smoke. They had already called for a rescue helicopter to get the rest of the kids out of the camp…if they ever found the damn campsite! It was up here somewhere, but there was so much smoke!
“Kim, take a breath. You can’t go back down alone. I’ll go. You get the rest of the kids to the camp and wait for Rick.”
He helped her put her backpack on and she shoved away from him. “I can’t just wait,” she yelled. “Besides,” she said and closed her eyes as she put a hand on Sandy’s slumped shoulders reassuringly, an eighth grader who had lipped her off earlier. “I can’t just stand around.”
“Don’t argue, Dan…I appreciate you trying, but I know the trail better. With your sense of direction…you’ll get lost and we’ll be looking for you too.”
“Right. I forgot. You are bitchy when stressed.”
“Sorry…” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Dan was a good guy. He had to be stronger than the average bear to put up with her for these last few weeks. She wasn’t exactly easy, but she was the best damn person to find those kids and he knew it. “Go. I’ll be fine. Get these kids safe. The camp should be up there…no more than five minutes.”
She took one last look at him and prayed he’d make it to the top of the trail with the kids and out of this smoke. She swallowed down her fear. She wasn’t sure if she was going to see him again, but she needed to find two kids who were going to get a severe tongue lashing when she seen them again. If she seen them again. She just hoped she did.

Hi Karen!

You’ve certainly raised the stakes and quickly too. Also, the added urgency you’ve wound through the passage creates a lot of tension and that’s another good way to heighten the drama of the moment. Thanks!

“Everyone freeze.” Mandy Parkson climbed onto a rock to better survey the group, but her headcount still came up short. She looked for likely culprits. “Where’s Ellie?”

The group of girls next to the stump exchanged uneasy glances. Mandy set her teacher face on stun and stared them down. One girl traced her toe along be ground, and Mandy zeroed in on her. “Sarah?”

“She and Keagan snuck off during the hike,” Sarah blurted out as the others rolled their eyes.

Great. As if they didn’t have enough problems, with her fellow teacher Mark “I know these trails” Johnson taking them on some shortcut that petered out in the middle of nowhere. He was out there now, scouting the area. “Aiden, put that stick down before you poke somebody’s eye out.”

A noise in the brush alerted her to Mark’s return. He caught her eye. “Miss Parkson, may I speak to you for a moment, please?”

“Of course. Mandy swept her gaze over the students. “Stay here. Do not move. I’ll be right back.

Mark gave her a hand while she stepped down from the stump and led her to the edge of the clearing. “Bad news, I’m afraid. No sign of the campsite. We must have gotten on the wrong trail somewhere along the way.”

“Worse news. Keagan and Ellie sneaked off during the hike.”


“I know. We’ll have to go back to look for them.”

He glanced up at the sky. “We only have about an hour of daylight left. We can’t risk taking the other kids on that trail in the dark. Someone could fall from a ledge.”

“We can’t leave them out there alone.”

“Mandy, I’m sorry. I know I’m responsible for getting us lost, but we can’t risk–”

“No. You don’t understand. Ellie is diabetic, and I’ve got her insulin. We have to find her.”

Mark stared at her. Finally he spoke. “Okay. You stay with the group, and I’ll start a search.”

She nodded. He could move faster and yell louder than she could. “I’ll get her kit so you can take it with you. I can keep the kids busy building some sort of shelter here and –” She stopped to sniff. “Uh, Mark?”


“Do you smell smoke?”

Dear Beth,

The writing’s very polished, nicely done. And giving the one student diabetes, requiring the shot is a clever way to raise the stakes. Like it. Thanks!

Our first stop, beside Cotton mountain’s defunct copper mines provided panoramic views of the Wicklow coast. Twelve children, the entire village school, toasted marshmallows around a flickering fire. A boy band, who got their first break on my radio show, lip synched through their recent hit. Ten children joined in for the chorus.
Wait, My eardrums ached. There should be twelve. I counted again. Jeremy’s brothers disappeared.
Along with Jeremy himself. Perhaps they went ahead to the camping area.
The boyband agreed to babysit the ten kids. I descended steep mountain steps to our tented site beside the medieval monastery.
A dense smoke expanded and lingered. “What’s on fire?”
“It’s only tidal mist.” Jeremy had a brother on each side and handed me a bouquet of wildflowers. “We gathered these for you. Thanks for making it possible for us to remain together.”
Tears stung my eyes. For once, I wasn’t a black sheep. Before I formulated a modest reply a flashlight bobbed up a stony path.
“Coo -eee.” The shrill female voice was not my regular radio guest, a part time witch, who closed the evening with a natural fireworks display.
Jeremy, Zachary and Lucas huddled closer to each other and then, to me.
The figure stepped into the light of the boyband’s tour bus. “Jeremy Cotton, I located your stepmother in Bratislava so your half brothers leave in three days.”

Hi Mary!

Great that you put us into what felt like the middle of the story, that’s another good way of raising the stakes, heightening the tension. So long as enough facts are given so the reader has a context for what’s happening, otherwise it’s just frustrating. This was intriguing, introducing the brothers, and nice characterization with the heroine tearing up about the flowers. Gives quick, good insight to the character. Thanks!

“Not again”, Tessa moaned as she counted heads for the tenth time.
She was stuck in the middle of nowhere with fifteen pre-teens and a horrible phobia of snakes. The night air seemed to be full of hormones, the scent of roasting hotdogs, and a white cloud of bug repellent that smelled just awful.
“Paul…have you seen Frankie and Benson?”
Her camp counseling companion frowned and looked around him with unconcealed frustration in his eyes. Their two runaway campers were becoming a huge nuisance. They had survived three days in wilderness as they tried to earn survival badges for the ‘Ranger Kids’ program, but if Frankie and Benson didn’t get their acts together the kids might just learn a course in hiding bodies.
Paul shrugged and blew out an annoyed breath. “You check the tents and I will search the perimeter. Hopefully they are just sitting up another prank.”
Tessa shuddered as she remembered their last joke. It had taken her three hours to get the marshmallows out of her hair and another two to wash the chocolate and graham cracker crumbs out of her sleeping bag. Being a den mother was proving harder than she thought.
While the other thirteen campers were busy telling scary stories around the fire, Tessa made her way to the colorful tents that stood a few feet away. She flicked on her flashlight and made a quick search of all of the units…until she got to hers. The flap was open and she remembered not only zipping it closed, but locking it too.
She crawled inside and looked around, surprised to see everything still in its place. It wasn’t until she began to crawl out that she felt something cold and long drop onto the top of her head. Scrambling, she made her way outside to find Frankie and Benson standing at the opening. Both boys were laughing until she let out a huge scream and pulled the snake off the top of her head.
She threw it without a second thought and had the satisfaction of watching it land on Frankie’s face. He let out a horrified yelp and ran, not watching or caring where he was going. He dashed through the singing campers, catching his foot on a blanket and dragging it behind him into the woods.
Paul jogged to her side as they both laughed, enjoying the payback that both boys were going to endure…until they smelt the smoke. Turning, they watched as a trail of fire began to light up the night, making the other campers scream and run for dear life.
Paul and Tessa looked at each other in disbelief before they grabbed some buckets and began to douse the land water. The bear was right! Only you can prevent forest fires!

ANNNDDDD….I found all of the mistakes after I posted. HAHAHAHA! This was so much fun! 😀

Dear Gina,

This was fun; and having the camp site turn into chaos was another solid route to raising the stakes. Injecting problems, difficulties, challenges to complicate situations, albeit in a natural way, is great for introducing tension and making the story more interesting and alive to readers. Another thing we often suggest to authors. Thanks!

Thanks, Kathryn!
This was a super fun writing exercise! Thanks for the sweet encouragement 😀

Chills skittered across my spine as the chill in the forest air enveloped me. Crazy to think that less than two hours prior, everything had been warm and happy with thoughts of roasting marshmallows over an open fire while telling spooky tales to eager eared middle-schoolers.

Now fear gripped me as the strong pine scent reminded me I wasn’t in my world, but rather the wilds of the forest.

Guilt soured my lunch. We were responsible for these kids. They trusted us to keep them safe and we’d failed them.

I stumbled over some roots.

“Maybe we should split up?” I offered. Even in the now dark conditions, I caught Mark give me the once over and dismiss me as incapable of being on my own out here.

“Last thing I need is to be out searching for anyone else, lost.”

Now I gave the over six foot, ruggedly handsome, Mark the once over as he went from hopeful savior to egotistical, judgmental donkey’s rear.

“We don’t have time to argue who’s at fault and who can do what. You heard the ranger. There’s a fire going and with the incoming winds, things could turn dangerous any minute now.” Thankfully the remaining children had evacuated with the other counselors, but Jeff and Jamey had vanished.

“Oh my God!” Mark pointed over my shoulder.

I turned towards a growing orange haze as my nostrils twinged from the acidic smell of smoke.

Hi Bobbi,

Using the first person is working well here. That alone, given the context of the story, really personalizes things for the reader and by association ups the stakes in a sense. Writing is polished and the characters come clear right away via the dialogue exchanged between the adults. Thanks!

Riley reached out and grabbed her, pulling her close against his chest.  She froze, her body stiffening at the sudden contact. The scent of spicy body wash surrounded her as strongly as his arms. The sudden white panic of discovering the two kids missing and the threat of possible forest fire that had taken control of her slowly ebbed at the silent comfort he offered.  
She slowly relaxed, savoring the one thing she’d never received growing up.  Comfort from an adult. She’d always found peace and solace from the innocence of children which was why she loved working with them. 
The silence around them seemed out of place with twenty middle schoolers accompanying them on the camping trip. She turned her head to peek at the kids. They were staring at her and Riley, eyes wide with concern and…a touch of fear. Oh, she hoped not.  She never wanted to frighten them. 
Off to one side, one child was squatting on the ground digging through his backpack. Sam.  Good old Sam, never one to allow a brief moment of stillness to pass without finding something to eat. He pulled a bag of chips out of his pack and popped it open. His sigh of joy reached out touched her. A giggle escaped her.  
She straighten away from Riley, calmer, better able to cope with finding Brett and Amy.  Looking up into his green eyes, she smiled.  His handsome face split into a wide grin.

Dear Judith,

What a touching moment! Really well done how you wove the romance into the scenario, and in its own way, upping the stakes. I also likes where you began the moment, bringing us directly into what was happening, and managing to convey quite a lot about the heroine in a short passage, i.e. how she always found solace in children, but here it’s the same emotion but different given the hero. Nice voice, too. Thanks!

Longer than a couple paragraphs but I needed the motivation for my current WIP, so I’m jumping in for inspiration. *rolls up sleeves*

Lifting his boots automatically over the exposed roots of the poplar to his left, Torrance stopped and absorbed the blow from behind. He kept his body rigid even when she took his side and peered up into his face, the hand clutching her forehead slipping down to her side in his peripherals.

Even in the twilight her light blonde waves seemed to glow. They’d gotten loose of their hair tie somewhere in the frantic gathering of the children to the panic of their headcount being short by two troublemakers and their subsequent two-person search party into the woods.

Naturally Torr had been paired with her of the two parent volunteers and two other teachers on duty.

Jeanie Madison.

Otherwise his almost wife until she called off the wedding, packed up and moved cities and Fedexed the heirloom ring. Sure, he’d asked her to do it only because he couldn’t stand the idea of Jeanie hand-delivering it to him. A part of Torr hoped she’d come home and explain why she’d gone cold turkey on him in such a spectacular way.

Back to the present: “Why did you stop suddenly?”

“Because we passed that tree,” Torrance tilted his head to the side at the poplar, “once already.”

“Really?” her disbelief grated on his thin nerves.

He’d had a long day shepherding teens who filtered all their instructions into their own codes and went off to do whatever they liked topped off now by two of those kids missing and on his watch.

Some responsible teacher I’m turning out to be…

“I’ve got this covered. You should get home, Miss Madison.”

She puckered her lips at the formality and drawing his attention to them. Heat fired his blood in a way no amount of running through the woods searching for their lost party had thus far.

Divorced or not, the fact that she had a teen-aged daughter didn’t kill his hormones should have had him grabbing her shoulders and pushing her in the direction of the parking lot.

Especially when she said things like, “Let me help, Torr. Sherry knows her way around and my sister’s working earlier shifts. She won’t be alone.”

Yeah, but we’d be alone.

Frankly that was what worried him maybe even more than the missing teens.

Hi Marna!
Thanks for taking the hero’s pov. The ‘male voice’ isn’t always easy for a lot of writers. Injecting their romantic past into the present is a good way of ramping up the internal conflict and raising the stakes. The reader can right away feel the tension rising between them. Thanks!

Cathy should have never allowed herself to come on this trip. “One night,” her sister, Melissa, said. One night of chaperoning an overnight trip for Jackson’s class. Her nephew and a bunch of other thirteen-year-olds. Agreeing was the worst decision Cathy’d ever made. Except, Jackson looked so excited, his face brighter than she’d ever seen it at Christmas.
A rock appeared out of nowhere and ruined Cathy’s pleasant glow. To her right, Mr. Darnell Yamauchi, the school’s music teacher, chuckled. She scowled at him and righted herself before facing forward to squint into the distance, but it was hard to see surrounded by trees and darkness of dusk.
“You won’t see it for a while yet.”
She huffed, agitated that his voice carried itself deep into her body. It resonated in her bones and dragged her attention to him. Not that she was the only one who experienced this strange phenomenon. Every woman Cathy saw who heard Darnell’s voice reacted the same. While the man himself might not warrant a second glance, his voice drew the ear and demanded he whisper sweet words. Then again… Cathy peeked at him from the corner of her eye. He wasn’t the kind of man seen on the covers of romance novels or even fantasy books. No bulging muscles or dark, chiseled jawline. His head was shaved, a bit of dark stubble on his chin from the day’s long hike. While his nose was a bit flat and lips too thin, there was a certain command to the way he carried himself.
“Mr. Yamauchi.” One of the kids, Cathy thought her name was Noelle, rushed to their side, her eyes wide and wet, face flushed red. “Jackson and Nicholas are missing.”
Cathy’s stomach dropped and her heart lurched. She whirled around, registering that Darnell asked Noelle questions, but Cathy couldn’t focus. Scanning the group of kids, she tried to find the unruly mop of chestnut hair that ran in her family. Nothing. Her head spun, her lunch threatened to come up. She took a step into the mass of children, instinct demanding she find Jackson when a hand gripped her arm just below her elbow in a firm grip.
She whirled, ready to snap. This was her nephew and he needed her.
“Calm down.” Darnell’s voice did nothing but agitate her nerves further. “You continue to the campsite with the rest of the kids and I’ll go looking for them.”
The words barely filtered into her spinning thoughts when Cathy barked out a laugh. Sharp and jagged, just like her insides. “No.” She narrowed her eyes when he opened his mouth to argue. “Listen, I don’t know how to make heads or tails of these woods. You do. We’re already behind, so they’ll have sent someone to search for us. You take the kids since you’ve done this before and I’ll backtrack.”
“I might not be a wilderness expert but I did come prepared.” She shrugged her backpack off one arm and turned it to press into her chest. The first thing she dug out was a flashlight, followed by a compass. “We’ve been traveling east, that much I remember. I’ll backtrack a bit to the west and call for the boys. Not too far, since they can’t have gotten far themselves. Don’t argue with me.” She stepped close, lowering her voice, her head clearing now that she had a plan of action. “You’re their teacher. They need you more than they need me.”
Fierce lines etched themselves into his face, and for a moment he resembled an ancient warrior, prepared to rush into battle, a war cry preceding his thundering steps. He nodded, but it did nothing to bank the fire in his eyes. He used the grip he still had on her arm to drag her close, her backpack squished between them. Her heart pounded and her mind went blank. He leaned in close, his breath heavy and hot against her ear.
“I’ll come for you. Wherever you go, I will come for you.”

Dear A. Anderson,

The opening and closing lines are powerful and impactful and that’s always good; keeps the reader’s attention. Good detail about the scenario and characters. As I’ve mentioned, introducing an element of romantic tension does raise the stakes effectively. Thanks!

Kelly adjusted her backpack and scanned the horizon. She glanced back at her charges. Ten middle schoolers looked back at her with grim faces. It had been an almost an hour since two of the campers had decided to sneak away of the group and head back to the campgrounds without telling anyone. The rest of the group was now paying for their rebellion by being herded like sheep. Kelly led the way and Logan followed. No one would be stupid enough to try to slip past the six foot four man who looked like he could be a linebacker for the Cardinals.
A glow in the skyline bathed the mountain trail in golden colors “Check out that sunset.” One of the young girls breathed.
“That’s not the sunset.” From the back of the group, Logan pushed his way through the gangly pre-teens.
Kelly fought the urge to roll her eyes. She loved these camping trips with the outreach program dedicated to giving inner city youth experiences outside their neighborhood, but why, oh why, had she been paired with the most arrogant man she’d ever met. “So what is it? The city lights?”
“The sun sets in the west and Phoenix is southwest of us.” His dark brown eyes held hers and he leaned closer. “Do you smell that?”
His rich baritone voice held a sense of urgency and Kelly took a deep breath. “Smoke.” Panic filled her chest but she fought to control it. She had to hold it together. “How close?”
“Too close. And moving fast.” Logan peered through the binoculars.
She shuddered. Desert wildfires were serious. The dry plants of the desert made excellent kindling and the winds could whip a small flame into a firestorm in no time. The campgrounds were in the same direction as the glow. “We have to find Kesha and Cory.”
“I’ll find them. Take the kids and head for river. Follow it to the bridge. You should be able to get cell service by then. Call search and rescue if you haven’t heard from me by then.”
“You can’t head toward that alone.” Her stomach rolled and she fought to steady her breathing.
Logan pulled her in and kissed her. A hard kiss that sent shock waves right to her toes. He deepened the kiss and Kelly relaxed against him. “What did you do that for?”
He gave her a cocky grin. “Stopped your panic attack didn’t it?”
Her heart dropped to her stomach. He’d only kissed her to make a point. Why was she so disappointed? She didn’t even like him.
Her lips felt swollen from the pressure of his kiss and she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, but he caught her hand.
He leaned close to her ear. “Besides, I’ve been looking for an excuse to do that for last week.” Turning to the kids, his posture demanded attention. “Stay with Kelly and do exactly what she says. I’ll meet you at the bridge.”
Smoke drifted over the ridge and for the first time, flames could be seen with the naked eye. She didn’t like this at all.
Logan squeezed her hand. “What happened to your brother wasn’t your fault, so stop thinking about it. You can do this. These kids are depending on you.”
She lifted her chin. How did he know exactly what to say to make her feel better? “You heard him, let’s backtrack on this trail and get to the river as quick as we can.”
The kids turned and trotted down the trail and Kelly wrapped her arms around him. “When you get back, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

whoops! I didn’t realize this was sooo long. Way more than a couple of paragraphs. Sorry. I guess I got carried away and I can’t figure out how to edit my original post.

Hi LeAnne!

I liked how you used the kiss in the scene; it definitely raised the stakes and quickly. The added line about the heroine’s guilt related to her brother was also a nice touch and good way to make things intriguing for the reader and ramping up the tension. What happened there, the reader is immediately asking. Well done. Thanks!

“Ms. Bucannon I told you those two were trouble. How did you let them slip away?” Logan Scowled, while re-counting the line of milling teenagers. “Hormonal teenagers will be the ruin of me.”
“What did you expect me to do? Tag their ears like a couple of deer?” Polly Bucannon snapped, tucking a blonde strand behind her ear. She caught the eye of one teenage girl who was hovering nearby. “Pricilla, where are they?”
“Who?” Pricilla’s expression was way too angelic for a teenage girl.
“You know who. Brett and Angel.” Polly rolled her eyes.
Shrugging, Pricilla said, “I might have heard something about skinny dipping. But you didn’t hear that from me.”
“What?” Logan looked horrified. “Ms. Bucannon go get them.”
Polly snorted. “Me?”
“Or you can work on the Van.” Logan smirked. “I’m fine with that.”
Polly sighed and took off down the path. “If I see those two naked you do realize I can’t unsee it, right?”
Logan was about to respond and instead he pulled his dark brows together and sniffed the air. “Do you smell smoke?”
Polly froze in her tracks. “Seriously? What’s next, locust?”

Dear Grace,

Liked the warmth and humor here, and most readers will immediately relate to the heroine and her reactions and thinking, i.e. seriously, what next, locusts. Keeping the hero and heroine at odds and increasing their tension is a good way to raise the stakes. Thanks!

Well here I go not my usual and no sheikh eek

The smell of smoke was getting stronger, yet no real sign of fire. Which was a good sign. Mightn’t even be travelling in their direction. And she had to remain calm, though felt sick to her stomach. Having no idea how two of the children of their group had escaped, unseen. Tony uptight and she couldn’t blame him, even when he scolded her for been so reckless to let it happen.
Gathering the rest of the kids together they were loaded into the mini van, while Tony grabbed a backpack to shoulder, ready to go searching for the two missing children. They couldn’t risk the other children’s lives as well. They had to be seen to safety. The campsite, a good twenty kilometres away.
Anna joined him handing over a touch. The sun was sinking fast, and soon would be swamped in darkness. Already the thick terrain was a dark threatening monster that had swallowed up two of their children.
His dark troubled eyes glanced across at her as his hand curled around the touch. Pale and features tight. “I’m sorry about before. I had no rights to stay that to you. Anna you must go.”
“I don’t like leaving you.”
“There is no choice, Anna, now go.” She looked behind her at the children in the bus. Very excited children. Having no idea of the real danger they were in. The smell of smoke in the far distance was getting stronger. Caught between a rock, and hard place, she knew the children had to come first.
“I’d come back for you. Once I get them with the others, I’d come back,” she promised. “You’d need transport,” she pointed out before he could argue with her. She placed a hand on his arm to squeeze. “I know you will find them,” she whispered, trying to keep calm. Though her heart was pounding at a thousands beats a minute. He had to.
She watched on helpless, her heart in her throat as he headed in, disappearing into the thick busy terrain to soon only see a flashing bobbing light of the touch. She spun around and raced to the van. As soon as she got to the campsite, the sooner she could get back.
One of the missing children was his own nephew.

Dear Jan,

You’ve captured the dark, looming danger really well. I felt drawn in. The twist of the hero’s nephew being one of the missing children is effective at raising the stakes. Nice work. Thanks!

And just like that, Shelly realized why she could never trust Devin again.
“You have to be kidding me,” Shelly said into the walkie-talkie. The smoky scents in the air were getting stronger and she feared that they had left the fire burning back at the campsite. “Can you count again?”
“I just did,” Devin said over the channel. “Cam and Ellie are not here. I’m going to start heading back towards the pond.”
“No, come back to the group. It’s getting dark and if we go anywhere we need to all stay together.”
Devin clicked on his walkie-talkie. She could hear his footsteps moving as his breath picked up. Once again, he was ignoring her. He was going back to the pond.
“Shelly, I’m taking the lead on this one. You keep walking with the kids back to the site and I’ll check back at the pond. If they’re not there I’ll head back to the main road and try to flag down a car.”
“We don’t even know where the campsite is, Devin. I don’t like this idea at all.”
Devin did not respond. Shelly looked at the students who were sipping from their canteens and re-lacing their boots. She couldn’t let them see her fear. She was their principal, after all, and they trusted her.
“Okay, everyone. We’re going to keep walking and Mr. Halpern will be along in a few minutes.”
“Is he going to find help?” Allie asked.
“No, he’s just taking up the rear with Cam and Ellie. They will catch up in no time. We’re fine. The campsite is just up ahead.” Shelly found the tiniest bit of solace in this version of the truth but even she could hear the fear in her voice. A fear she hoped these children would never know.

Hi Patsy!

Very polished writing. Pacing is good; I like how you handled the physical actions, but didn’t get bogged down in the repetitive minutiae–we’re often telling writers to avoid this. Even a small turn like the heroine’s admission to herself at the end about her fear can be a good way to raise the stakes. Admissions, confessions, secrets are often useful at upping the stakes. Thanks!

Lizzie brushed her sweaty hair off her forehead. She glanced at her phone – there was no coverage up here, but at least it could provide the time. It was getting late, and they should already be at the campsite. She looked forward at Will, who felt he was the best map-reader and therefore was leading. He raised his hand to halt the straggling line of kids. She saw him looking at the map in his hand, and pushed forward past the other kids to ask him what he was doing.
“What’s up? ”
“There’s something wrong with this map.”
Lizzie looked at it. It was wrinkled, a little blurred where it had been folded, but something more than that was wrong.
“Where did you get that?”
“George gave it to me, just as we were leaving. He said there was a mistake on the original.”
Lizzie stiffened. “George? My ex? You took a map from him?”
William looked down at her. “I’m not interested in any problems with your love life – ”
A hand pulled on Lizzie’s t-shirt. “Ms. Bennett – is that smoke over there from the campsite?”
Lizzie and William whirled around – but the smoke wasn’t from a campsite.
“It’s a fire!” a voice yelled, and panic ensued. With William and Lizzie together at one end of the line, the kids in back started to run. Both adults headed after the stragglers.
“Stay!” yelled William.
Lizzie reluctantly stopped. William obviously didn’t know his way around here, but the remaining kids needed some semblance of order, so apparently that was her. She called the kids to her, reassuring them that they’d be fine, all the while watching what she could see of the smoke through the gathering darkness. William finally returned, using the flashlight on his phone to find his way back to Lizzie and the other kids. He held it up, and did a quick count. He froze for a moment, and counted again. Lizzie ran her eyes over the kids looking at them. He stared at her. “We’re missing two.” She nodded in confirmation, her brain racing to come up with a plan of action.
Then they heard the screams.

Hi Anne,

Love the drama at the end. Definitely made me want to read more and great for raising the stakes. Introducing an unexpected line or action into the story can be a simple but truly great way to go. Thanks!

“I can’t believe this is happening.”
Rochelle Matheson had been talked into helping out with the children’s camping trip this summer. Camping was the last idea she would put on her list of fun. In fact, she wouldn’t put it on her list at all. Considering herself a bit of a princess, the thought of sleeping on uncomfortable beds with nothing but a sleeping bag to keep you warm at night; bugs buzzing around your sticky sweaty body, taking a bite any chance they can get. No bubble bath with a glass of wine surrounded by candle light. Instead she was surrounded by a bunch of overly excited twelve-year-old boys that are all charged with raging testosterone.
Rochelle was feeling a little homesick herself right now. They had just completed a head count as they loaded the kids back onto the bus after their trek through the beautiful New Zealand native bush, and realised they were down by two.
“It’ll be okay.” Blake Chamberlain had his hands on her shoulders to comfort her. Being teamed up with the six foot, athletic, Blake was the only thing she was enjoying on this trip. “We will find them.”
“They could be anywhere? It’s starting to get dark and the fog is thickening. We’ll never find them in this. We should have done more head counts along the way.” Rochelle was scared for both the children and herself. She hadn’t been a teacher at the school for long. She had taken over her class at the beginning of the term after the previous teacher had left to have her baby. “Oh my god, what if they fell off a cliff?”
“Relax. These kids are sensible. Surely they can’t be far away. Ben said he saw them as we climbed that last set of steps. We’ll just back track and see if we can spot them.”
Blake had been teaching for the last ten years at this school and had experienced his fair share of kids not following the rules. It had never lead to kids going missing before. He was feeling a little apprehensive but he could see the panic starting to build on Rochelle’s porcelain face. He knew he had to remain calm for her as well as the children.
“Have you done this before?” Rochelle was trying to make small talk to take her mind off what they were actually doing?
“Yes, we come to this spot every year. I know the area fairly well. I grew up here.” Blake was at home in this environment. It reminded him of the hunting trips that he and his father took every holiday week-end. He loved the fresh smell of the trees, the cool air against his skin, and the way he could forget about the busy hustle of the city when he was walking around in the bush.
“I’m in good hands then.” As soon as Rochelle heard the words she regretted them. A slight blush turned her cheeks pink.
Blake smiled. She looked quite pretty with some colour back in her face.
“Do you smell that?” Blake looked concerned.
“Is that smoke? It’s still a bit warm for house fires to be lit.”
“Over there.” Blake was pointing towards the concrete toilet block that stood at the entrance to the walking track. Black smoke was billowing up from behind and filling the air with the sooty ash.
As they rounded the corner of the building they saw the two missing children, and a rubbish bin that was well alight. Flames crackling in the moisture filled air, covering the area in a fiery glow.
“Jake! Elliot! What the hell have you done!”

Hi, Rebecca,
I like your set up here. The image of a young teacher so far out of her element certainly grabs the reader’s attention and lends intensity to the situation. The suggestion that the missing kids are responsible for the fire is also interesting. The stakes are definitely raised for the teachers if their charges are committing arson under their watch!

Thanks for the comments Megan. Really appreciate the time all the editors put in to reading our stories, and the feedback given.

‘Desdemona was the least likely of the two to run away,’ Agnes sobbed into what was already a rather soggy handkerchief. She placed her left hand tentatively by her bosom as if to catch her heart from escaping from her chest and continued to explain.

In the adjacent room Sean was pacing up and down. He berated himself for being so stupid and just possibly his school teacher was in fact right that he wouldn’t amount to much but it did in fact amount to 95,000.00 pounds to be exact. The amount demanded in cash for the release of the two children. He looked at the ransom note again before shoving it back into his pocket.

‘We didn’t let them out of our sights for the whole entire time. I really cannot fathom what happened. What minute they were there and next minute, they were gone. Disappeared, as if….by……magic.’

‘Magic, you say. interesting.’

‘Yes, but no, I mean I’m not suggesting foul play or anything tribal…’

Inspector Lawes peered from his obviously cracked spectacles, ‘what in fact are you suggesting Ms Phipps? Are you suggesting the that children, I mean teenagers, have disappeared by some form of ….magic? As a history teacher am I correct in assuming that you are familiar with the folklore of these parts?’

‘Yes, but no, I mean I read somewhere about the history and the missing children…’

‘And yet you still decided to come here regardless of strict instructions not to, Ms Phipps. You did away with your camp guide for overseas visitors and decided to just drive into this region after dark with a bus load of children, I mean teenagers, for what reason exactly?’

‘To hold a camp fire and sing songs, practise survival techniques,’ for the first time Agnes’s voice sounded full and cheery, the tension in her legs began to ease, ‘Sean said it would be a wonderful experience for them.’

‘Sean?’ Inspector Lawes accidentally dropped his pen to the floor.

‘Yes, Sean Clarke, the other teacher who accompanied me.’

‘Ah, so Mr Clarke was in charge of group activities?’ Inspector Lawes quickly secured ownership,of his beloved pen and continued to scribbling notes.

‘No not exactly.’

‘And the smoke did not alarm you either, Ms Phipps?’

‘Either? I only realised the smoke after the teenagers were missing.’

‘And Mr Clarke, when did he notice the smoke Ms Phipps, when did he notice the smoke?’ Inspector Lawes reiterated his question to be sure that it resonated.

‘Am not sure. We had a little argument and he went walking away from the bus.’ Agnes began to feel stressed again, her skin started itching.

Inspector Lawes looked intently at the frail physique of Ms Phipps and wondered why she would risk so much to come here, she looked ill, sick in fact. Mr Clarke was no angel either he deduced, what kind of man leaves a sick woman in the middle of the bush, on such a night. Foreigners, he thought shaking his head, they are the bane of my existence ever since they set up that camp site I rarely get home in time to eat dinner with my wife and family, and as for those, teenagers, they are probably copulating in a bush somewhere with some…’magic’….condoms. Yet, deep down in his heart, he didn’t really believe that.

‘What were you arguing about Ms Phipps? What were you arguing about that would make Mr Clarke walk away from you?’

A very disheveled man suddenly stormed the room, ‘they were arguing about money, lots of money!’ His voice was so loud and his tone was so knowing that Ms Phipps clasped both her hands by her ears and fainted.

Hi, Lola,

Wow, there’s a lot happening in this excerpt! You’ve created great tension by introducing a third point of view with the police officer. That sense that the hero and heroine could be in trouble with the authorities definitely raises their stakes – as does the sense that they’re not telling the whole truth about the ransom request. The decision to keep them separated is also very effective. The reader will wonder who’s going to crack first and why they can’t be completely open with what they know.

A scream pierced the air.

Alice looked at her campers. Nobody moved. Eight frozen faces stared at her, pale and stricken. Alice’s heart pounded in her chest. Eight. There were supposed to be ten.

“Where’s Eddie? And Rosa?” There was no response. “Guys, seriously, this is important. Let’s think.” Panic bubbled in her throat. This couldn’t be happening, not again. Not when she had just managed to forgive herself for what took place all those years ago, on a similar mountain. Think. Think. “When was the last time we saw them? Anyone?” The silence was deafening.

Neil Harrow, her over-serious but devastatingly handsome co-counselor, appeared over the ridge. He walked with purpose, a little too fast. Alice could tell that he was unhappy. Maybe the campsite wasn’t up ahead. She should have double-checked the map. Neil was going to blame her, and he wouldn’t be wrong. She’d done a terrible job protecting these kids, the kids he cared so much about helping.

“Alice, a word?” There was a strange pain in his expression. “The rest of you guys stay here and be good, we’ll only be a minute.” Alice followed him a few paces up the ridge.

“Did you hear that?” Alice whispered, “The scream?” Neil gave a slight nod and his jaw tightened. “Neil,” she took a deep breath, “Eddie and Rosa are missing.”

His eyes sparked. “Are you kidding me, Alice? First you manage to get us lost, and now you’ve lost two campers too?” Alice felt on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Instead of the angry response she expected, Neil suddenly enfolded her into his arms. She was shocked. His arms were warm and strong around her. “It’s okay, Alice. That was uncalled for. I’m sorry. We’re gonna find a way out of this.” He pulled back, but his hand lingered on her shoulder.

“There’s smoke up ahead,” he said tersely. “We need to find Eddie and Rosa and get out of here.”

Their eyes locked as another scream sliced through the silence.

Hi, Maye,
Well, that’s definitely a dramatic opening! I love the suggestion that Alice has been in this kind of situation before and that she’s somehow trying to make amends for what happened last time. (I’d love to know what happened!) That’s a great way to raise her personal stakes – it’s not just about these kids and this emergency, but about a deeper part of her psyche. The twist with Neil’s unexpected reaction is also a really effective method to draw the reader in and keep us on our toes. Well done!

The smoke was in the air before they started. It was a wisp on the side of the mountain that was lost in the distraction of organizing the camp gear. A dozen cub scouts excited to earn outdoor badges took all of Lisa’s attention. If everyone kept up there would be enough daylight for a swim in the alpine lake to cool off and smores around the campfire before lights out.

Lisa would have time to talk to him then. He was fantastic with the kids and would set up the swimming buoys and remind them to watch out for their partner. There would be a few moments of quiet when they could talk. She could see Damien behind her on the trail, his tall, strong shape made them feel safe.

A week ago, it wouldn’t have mattered that she was admitted to an east coast law school, but that was before Damien had kissed her. If she was honest with herself, that kiss changed everything. Tomorrow was Sunday, but there was still time to let them know she would accept the scholarship, if that was what she still wanted.

It shouldn’t have happened that way, but it did. A mountain can play cruel tricks. The visibility was low and they missed the trail marker and ended up in a deep gully. The descent was steep and she could hear the sound of a creek beneath them. That meant that the sides of the trail were unstable. The kids were beginning to look less confident and she looked for a opening where they could all sit down and wait for Damien to bring up the rear.
A rustle of birds rising in the trees made them look up, the smoke was settling in the gully making it tougher to breathe. There was nothing to do but wait for the rest of the group.
“You have Olive and Bill with you?”
Damien’s voice was welcome, but his question was not. She had six with him, but only four heads came through the clearing with him, two missing. It was the worst thing she could imagine happening. Lost on the mountain, with dusk failing and a forest fire creeping over the ridge. There was no way to get out until daylight, but first they had to find the missing kids.

She couldn’t live with herself if she lost those kids, and Damien would never recover. She would lose her chance with him and her law school dreams all in a single day. Now was not the time to think of herself and she turned her attention back to the group. Damien was organizing everyone into teams.

Hi Kathryn,
I like the way you have injected some subtle hints at coming danger, such as the unstable mountainside and the childrens’ nervousness – nicely done! And I notice you have woven in some romantic conflict as well, always good to add emotional stakes to the situation. We have the setup for some intense drama – what additional factors might you introduce that would complicate or add urgency to an already perilous situation? Think of things that might stand in the way of Damien and Lisa staging an effective search, say, or a specific threat to one of the kids that makes finding them quickly even more imperative. Introducing a deadline is a great technique for adding urgency – they must find Olive and Bill in the next hour or. . .
Thanks so much for participating in our challenge!

The pungent smell of the smoke was getting stronger. Kent glanced at Mandy, with concern in his eyes. Fire and two missing children were not what he had signed up for today. He’d never before been on fire line trying to quench a forest blaze, but he knew enough to understand that the smell of smoke could turn into something real dangerous in an instant—and he’d be damned if these kids and Mandy were going to perish on his off-duty watch.

“It’s almost dark,” Mandy said, urgently, quickly counting heads again, as the children ran about in a wild, giddy-like frenzy, playing. Then she shrieked at what she saw and the children collectively screamed. A giant wall of flames, popped up out of nowhere, and surrounded them all.

Hi, Chris,
I like the suggestion that the hero is an off-duty firefighter – that definitely raises the stakes for him. That sense of professional responsibility is great and plays well with his need to protect the heroine and the kids. It’s also really powerful to end with that surge of danger – I wonder how they’ll get out of this!

Thanks, Megan. Fab that you liked my entry, awesome reply. 🙂

Know that there’s always a way out, and with Kent’s keen eye, he’ll find it. One possible escape could be that he recalls a lake in the backfield–where they had all, earlier, taken a swim. Still, there’s no hose or pump to get water to the fire.

Then he spies a van full of boy scouts in the distance, who’d been set to plant a truckload of trees–that are in buckets!

With no time to spare, Kent summons the help of the scouts, dumps several the trees/dirt from the buckets, and instigates a bucket brigade.

When a break in the flames comes, Kent rushes in and leads Mandy and the children to safety.

An ultimate, possible, scene end could be everybody planting the trees.

“Kids. Let’s take another rest stop until Sid figures out the route to the campsite. Check if your friends are around,” Vidya gave the young campers the usual order and sat on the platform of what looked like an abandoned temple. A dull light shone in the entrance. She put her heavy travel bag down and stretched her stiff calf and shin muscles that had worked throughout the upward climb. Her eyes swept over the mass of tired faces. If the campsite couldn’t be found, she would rather pitch a tent in the same spot, have dinner and crash. Yes, the night air was chill and not a soul in sight. Was this not a popular camping site and said to have maximum campers at this time of the year? Definitely she was not hoping to see such a deserted place.

A waft of cool breeze blew from the valley. The children huddled closer. Now she could clearly hear the drum beat that had been there since the last fifteen minutes of their climb. She turned her head to follow the sound. Now a loud cheering noise had joined the drum beat. Alone, in the middle of nowhere, the sound sent a shiver down her spine. A cloud of smoke was rising from the spot down. It was a Narikurava (ancient tribes who hunted for their own food) region and it must be a party night for them.

“Where are you Hamsini? You mean at the last resting spot? What? I can’t hear you. Hello!” Sneha’s scream made her turn her attention back to the kids. Sid, who was checking the map under the dull light at the top of the dilapidated building, heard Sneha and came rushing over. “It is Hamsini. Sh..she says she is lost.” Sneha’s words sounded like the appropriate time for reckoning. Almost involuntarily, Vidya started to count the heads.

“Where is she calling from? Didn’t you deposit your phones? ”

“Ham and I didn’t. ” Sneha said, her gaze dropping as their eyes met.

“The line got cut,” she said handing her phone. “Sid!” Vidya placed a hand on Sid’s shoulder. Ï think we have only thirteen here instead of fifteen. Another kid is missing.”
“It is Ria. She is a first-timer to the camp.”

“Does she also have a phone?” Sid asked Sneha. “No,” it was Leena who chipped in. “She is such a..”

“No! cut it.”Vidya cut in with authority.

“First let us find them. Other things later.” Sid took Sneha’s phone and moved away.

“How Sid?” Vidya asked as the gravity of the situation began to sink in. “It is so dark out here and we have been trying for the atleast two hours to reach the camp site. How are you going to find two kids in this nowhere land?”

“Vidya,”Sid said taking her hands in his. “We are their caretakers. And we are the only ones these orphaned kids have. We should not give up without trying. I will climb down. No, don’t give that I-told-you-so look. The trip is going to work out fine. These kids are going to have an awesome time. Now let me give a call to Hamsini.”

Vidya wished she felt half as hopeful as Sid did. What if something happened to Sid? He was all she had. She took a deep breath and tried to push away the negativity and fear gnawing at her insides.
Far away, the drumbeat and the cheering got a tad louder.

Hi Vijayalakshmi,
You’ve managed to convey high stakes with the addition of a few small details – the fact that one of the missing children is a first-timer to the camp, the chill of the evening, and the isolation of their location. Also very effective is showing us Vidya’s apprehension. The fact that one of the people in charge is feeling fearful and uncertain heightens the sense of danger – and gives the reader a character to identify with.
And your closing line adds a nice touch of menace and mounting tension!

Thanks to everyone for participating in our Weekend Writing Challenge!

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