I had an unpleasant experience on Friday. They were testing the fire systems in the lab where I work, and that meant that at random points during the morning, the alarms would blare out – once, while I was working directly under an alarm, which was an interesting experience as you feel the soundwaves physically – and lights would flash. We’d been told this was going to happen, and that we did not need to evacuate during the process, but as I commented to a colleague, they hadn’t said we *couldn’t* leave the building. We wound up all putting in earbuds, then an engineer went through passing out the lil’ sponge rubber ear plugs, which helped – but didn’t entirely reduce the unpleasantness of the noise, not to mention the bright flashes from the alarm lights.
While this was going on, I was charting, and managed to miss signing off on a time on one of them. While reviewing them later, I realized it, and realized that I’d missed it because of the alarm. We do funny things when we’re under duress, we humans, and it’s something to contemplate about when I’m writing. This was not a life-or-death situation – it was a known alarm, but it still made me jump about a foot when it went off – and the charts merely record temperatures, and the time I removed this one can be deduced by looking at the time I installed it’s replacement.
However, it’s a great way to introduce uncertainty, jangled nerves, and missed connections into a story. Imagine a spaceship where you couldn’t escape the alarms, and they went on and on and on… people would be going mad. Hearing loss. Even after the alarms stopped, I was having tinnitus for a long time. I’ve had reviewers not like that I didn’t put a huge amount of detail into fight scenes, but I wrote those in consultation with people who had been in similar situations. The fog of war is a thing. You miss stuff around you, you’re so highly focused on what you’re doing, you can’t possibly be aware of what’s happening all the way across the battlefield. Or the space station, which is so partitioned off you couldn’t see it anyway.
While I’ve seen readers complain about smart characters making stupid mistakes while under duress, the reality is that when you can’t think straight because there’s a screeching that rattles your bones, you can make mistakes. There’s a reason the military drills in skills over and over and over – so you can do what you’re supposed to do, even when the brain is over there in the corner gibbering. Something deep down takes over and you do it. I’ve never personally been in combat. I was, however, trained in first responder skills, and when I reached motherhood, there were a few situations that came up where I had to be calm in the face of potential tragedies. To have panicked wouldn’t have helped, and it would have frightened the children. So I know, a tiny bit, what it feels like to operate on that other level.
As a plot device, this can be a handy way to get your protagonist in a lot of trouble. Pile on the alarms and diversions until he doesn’t know which way is up, and you can fit in plot twists that would work as amusement park rides!