The Five Stages of Surprise
by Jason Black
Readers judge the believability of your characters on two key factors: how they behave, and how they react. Behaviors are believable when a choice makes sense given everything we know about a character in some situation. But reactions are believable based on the emotions the character displays. This is where writers often fall down.
It can be hard to synchronize our own emotions with those the character should be having, because ultimately we are not the character. We are not directly experiencing what the character is experiencing. We have a different set of goals-writing our story-than the character has. And most of all, because we're the writer, we usually know what we're about to write. Which means we're not surprised in the same ways the character would be surprised by whatever event we're about to throw at them.
Surprise is the key, and fortunately, we humans are embarrassingly predictable creatures. Deep within the brain wiring we all share a common pattern of emotional response to any kind of surprise. Doesn't matter if the surprise is a small bit of good news or a terrible and sudden disaster. What unifies all surprises regardless of scale or severity is that the surprising event challenges a person's-or a character's-previous understanding of the world. This common challenge is why all surprises invoke the same core response pattern. The fact that all humans of ordinary mental function share this same pattern is why characters who demonstrate the pattern feel believable to us.
This article is the first in a series. This month we will cover the overall pattern. Over the next several months, we will explore each stage of the pattern in greater depth.
So what's the pattern?
The pattern is well known, but it is rarely considered outside of clinical psychology where we know it as the "five stages of grief," or the "Kubler-Ross model." We have all, since our earliest days on this planet, experienced this pattern time and time again. We know it to our very roots.
The core pattern, applied to a major disaster like being diagnosed with a terminal illness, might proceed as follows:
Stage one: Denial. The person denies the surprise. They literally don't believe it to be true. "That can't be right!" "But, I feel fine!" "You're a lousy doctor. I want a second opinion!"
Stage two: Frustration. The person sees that the situation is real, and hates that fact. "No! But I have so much I still want to do!" Kubler-Ross labels stage two as "anger," but in my view that's slightly off. It's frustration, because the situation is preventing the person from following through on the plans they had made and dreams they had. This results in secondary, surface emotions such as resentment and anger.
Stage three: Bargaining. Frustration fades. Now calmer, the person tries to negotiate their way out of the situation. Since, in our example, one cannot actually bargain with death, this impulse often expresses itself as bargaining with whatever higher power they ascribe to. "Save me from this, and I swear I'll stop drinking and will dedicate my life to charity work."
Stage four: Depression. Frustration and bargaining are really just extensions of denial, in that the first three stages are all attempts to avoid the consequences of unpleasant surprise. They are all attempts to avoid having to adjust one's previous understanding of the world to match a new reality. Reality, however, is notoriously unwilling to bend to our whims. Ultimately the denial strategies all fail, and when they do, the person must confront those elements of the new reality which are unpleasant. Some level of sadness, up to and including full-blown depression, results.
Stage five: Acceptance. Not only are humans predictable, they are also amazingly adaptable. Eventually, the person gets used to the new reality. The sadness fades too, permitting them to focus on how to make the most of the time they have left.
Scale and Speed
Those five stages play out at different speeds depending on the severity of the original surprise. The scale at which the stages occur-whether the pattern includes all five stages, fully developed, or just hits the highlights-depends mainly on whether the surprise was good or bad.
An unpleasant surprise of low severity, such as the cops pulling you over for speeding, passes quickly, but the stages still occur. Denial: "But I wasn't speeding, officer!" Frustration: subverted into quiet gestures like a clenched jaw or hands death-gripping the steering wheel. Bargaining: "Can't you just let me off with a warning? I promise I'll be more careful!" Depression: "Dang it! This is my second ticket this year. They're going to raise my rates!" Acceptance: you drive on, much more careful to watch your speed.
A major unpleasant surprise, like discovering a spouse's infidelity, may take months or even years to reach acceptance.
Pleasant surprises often skip the intermediate stages. After all, it's a lot easier to adjust one's understanding of the world in the face of good news. For example, why would anyone experience anger, bargaining, or depression upon realizing that they've won the lottery? But denial is still there, even if it is reduced to a few initial moments of suspecting a mistake-"No, I must have misread the numbers. Maybe this is last week's ticket."-and carefully confirming the truth before claiming your prize.
But big or small, fully realized or partial, the core pattern is the same, and is bookended with denial and acceptance. That's just how human beings react to surprises. That's why this model works so well as a template for figuring out how your characters will react when surprised.
Keep the duration and intensity of those stages proportional to the gravity of the surprise. Skip stages that don't make sense-bargaining is usually dispensable when confronting a character with an unpleasant surprise that is obviously true, like a car accident or a house fire. Feel free to rearrange stages two, three, and four; frustration and its surface expressions often take time to manifest. But learn the five stages of surprise, because they are the key to creating believable emotional responses.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com