by K. M. Lockwood
Dunford House
A reflection for writers and illustrators on this theme with some ideas to pursue.

The word ‘retreat’ is a homonym – the two different meanings are spelled the same and sound the same. Unfair, the child in me cries. Therefore, I intend to divide and conquer.

RETREAT noun – act of retiring in the face of danger, also verb

I suspect this is where my previous somewhat bellicose metaphor comes from. The Armed Forces used to beat a retreat on their drums to signal falling back when the odds were too high – or to entice the enemy into thinking that.
Credit: Drummer Boy by Erin Williamson no remix

Currently, commonplace advice holds that your central character must always be active – must take the lead and do things – not be ‘done to’. Largely, I would agree – we don’t want wimps. But there are occasions when discretion is the better part of valour.

For your work-in-progress, have you a situation where your protagonist should withdraw? It is even more effective if there is pressure on them to remain steadfast – but they know it’s futile or that there’s a better way. Have they taken on a role that’s too much, have they confronted an enemy or a challenge too soon?

Try a sequence where they need to go back and find the courage to start again. Perhaps they have to argue with companions, have to show how this is a better way when everyone else doubts them. This will make for a stronger character in the end – but if you’re really cunning, you might make the reader fear for them and their motives.

RETREAT noun - withdrawal into privacy; place of seclusion 

Clearly distinct from the military meaning, this has a spiritual element to it. The SCBWI-BI retreat at Dunford House, though full of fun and interaction, had that sense of pausing to reflect and consider. For writers and illustrators, the place of seclusion is a key element. We need space to escape the busy-ness of everyday.

That can apply to your work too. How about taking your character into an empty landscape, taking away all the outer stimulus and see how they cope? Will your YA character fall to bits without a mobile? Can your MG adventurer cope on a desert island? Visually, does your character stand up without a whole load of setting seducing the viewer?
Credit: St Cuthbert's Isle by Fr Lawrence no remix

It might be worth taking your protagonist to some isolated spot well out of their comfort zone and dumping them there. Cruel – but it can show their mettle.

Alternatively, they might need to go for themselves – leave their friends baffled and go off into the hills, the desert, out to a tiny island, to think deeply. It could be an exercise to discover more abou t them – or a brief moment in the narrative. This last might make an effective lull before a major crisis – a moment of introspection, of delicate lines and subtle hues before a riotous explosion of colour and action.

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion." 
                   Albert Camus 

K. M. Lockwood is a writing name of Philippa R. Francis. Once a primary school teacher, she became a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at West Dean College in 2011. Her story The Selkies of Scoresby Nab was short-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition and long-listed for the Times Chicken House in 2012/13. She was born in Yorkshire but now lives by the coast in Sussex. Her writing shows her deep fascination with British folklore and the sea. Her interests include reading, scuba diving and belly dancing, though not at the same time. She also blogs at


  1. Thanks for this, Philippa. I think your suggestions are great. Even if the resulting scenes don't make it into the final m/s, taking someone out of their comfort zone isn't necessarily cruel. It can be liberating and surprising - as in life.

  2. Great test of well you know a character as well block breaking ideas to get a story moving.
    Thank you, Philippa


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