The Second Stage of Surprise: Frustration

by Jason Black

November 2013

This article is part three in a series exploring the five stages of surprise as a writer's adaptation of the familiar five stages of grief emotional cycle. Last month, we dealt with denial. This month, we'll look at what happens next: frustration and the surface emotion of anger that comes with it. And while the frustration stage is never pleasant to experience, it can certainly be one of the most fun stages for authors to subject our characters to.

The classic five-stage model has anger as the second stage. Anger is certainly involved, but I view anger as a manifestation of a deeper sense of frustration. Whatever the unpleasant surprise is, it arrives while you-or your character-has something else in mind for their day, their week, or even their whole life. Dealing with the unexpected situation interrupts your plan. And it's always frustrating to have to do one thing when you'd rather be doing something else.

What's relevant is that frustration comes at the very instant one can no longer flatly deny the reality of a situation, because that's the moment when the situation definitively interrupts one's plan. Prior to that, people operate in a mode of denial, ignoring the situation and attempting to carry on as before.

The evolutionary psychology perspective on the fight-or-flight response is very illustrative, here. Denial is basically just flight: running away from unpleasant surprises. Frustration is the moment when we become aware that flight isn't going to work. That makes us feel cornered, trapped, and provokes our instinct to fight. This comes out as anger.

Note that the 'fight' portion of the response is still an extension of denial. It's another attempt to avoid the consequences of the unpleasant surprise. Fighting and getting angry may have made perfect sense, aeons ago, when faced with a pack of hungry hyenas in the Serengeti. It's quite possible if you yell and scream at them hard enough, that they really will go away. It makes a lot less sense to reflexively apply that same pattern of behavior to the typical unpleasant surprises we're faced with in modern life, or which we hit our characters with, but it's how humans work.

Normal Frustration and Anger

With that in mind, I see three significant purposes to frustration and anger in our novels.

First-as with all five of the stages-is psychological believability. It may not be rational, but this is what people tend to do. Hence, if you want us to believe in your characters, you might want to let them experience some frustration and anger when the plot throws a monkey-wrench in their plans.

Second is to convey the importance of the goals that the character was pursuing when interrupted. If we see a character get frustrated and mad when things don't go the way they want, it clearly shows that those goals meant something to the character. If, however, the character willingly deflects from an earlier goal without so much as a grumble, we're a lot less likely to believe that they ever cared about it in the first place.

Third is to shine light on the character's personality. You can't really know someone if you only ever see them in good times. After all, stress is very revealing. So show us how the character expresses and processes these emotions. Do they quietly seethe, jaw clenched tight? Do they blow up and throw things? Do they get violent? Show us, so we can truly know what kind of person your character is.

And of course, scale the size of the reaction to the scope of the situation. Exaggerated reactions usually don't work.

When Frustration and Anger Don't Fit

Just as with denial, the frustration and anger aren't always necessary. Certainly it makes sense to skip them for happy surprises, which for narrative purposes we can define as surprises facilitate a character's plans, or at the very least don't interrupt those plans.

Emotionally, frustration and anger don't fit all characters. Most normal people have these reactions, but not everybody. Some people are so mellow nothing seems to faze them. Some people, such as Zen masters or Indian sadhus, expressly cultivate a calm inner state in the face of any situations. So if you're writing that kind of character, showing a lot of frustration or anger would come across as inconsistent. Then there are the icy-cold characters, who are all business all the time: your typical Bond-esque action heroes who have been trained not to waste time getting angry.

Then there are situations in which a character normally would be expected to show frustration or anger, but are socially barred from doing so. Imagine, for example, having somebody rear-end your car in a parking lot, while your young child is with you. You might well want to read the other driver the riot act, but you're too aware of setting a good example of mature conflict resolution for your child.

And finally, there's another category of situation in which frustration and anger might not apply: Ones in which an unpleasant surprise is interrupting an even worse situation. Normally, sports teams hate to get rained out. But if your team is down eight runs in the sixth inning, and it's a do-or-die playoff game, you might welcome a sudden downpour. This can work as a temporary reprieve for your characters, but in my opinion works even better when the at-first-welcomed unpleasant surprise turns out to only make a bad situation worse.

Consistency and Character Arcs

While I encourage you to make use of this stage for all the reasons listed above, let me end this installment with a caution: if you're going to give a character strong frustration and anger responses, be consistent about it. It's no good if they fly off the handle one time, but then fail to react at all another time. Even worse if we see them react mildly to a situation of significance, but totally lose their cool over something tiny. So be consistent, but at the same time, don't be afraid to let a character's reactions evolve over time, particularly if your character starts out with an anger management problem. Seeing a character change their emotional responses-especially for strong emotions-is a very clear signal of personal growth, and shows us that their character arc has reached a new milestone.

Whether any of that is good or bad depends on the portrayal you're after. Either way, denial is undeniably human. Mastering the portrayals of denial is essential in your quest to present the most believable characters you can.

Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at

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