The Fourth Stage of Surprise: Depression

by Jason Black

January 2014

This article is part five 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 dealt with bargaining. This month, we’ll look at depression.

Depression marks the beginnings of acceptance. The three prior stages—denial, anger, and bargaining—were all about rejecting the reality or the consequences of an unexpected event. When all of those forms of rejection fail, one is forced to accept the reality of a situation. But accepting that it is in fact true and unavoidable doesn't mean one has to like it. For unpleasant surprises, some degree of sadness is the natural result.

As with last month's article, here we are only dealing with the emotional impacts of unpleasant surprises; in the same way that anger and bargaining don't make much sense in the context of pleasant surprises, neither does depression.

What Kind of Depression?

First, I must make one thing clear. This article is not specific to genuine clinical depression. The label "depression" comes from the original five stages of grief model, but for our purposes it is only category term encompassing all forms of sadness and dejection, up to and including clinical depression. Note also that this article discusses subjects that may be triggering for some people; please read with care, and seek help from a qualified practitioner if you think you may be suffering from clinical depression.

The Narrative Purpose of Depression

Depression has two main storytelling functions. When an unpleasant surprise hits a character’s life, something changes. A relationship may end, someone may die, the character may lose material possessions, a job, social standing, et cetera. Whatever the change, it's something the character doesn't like. The degree to which a character experiences sadness indicates how much they cared about whatever was changed or lost. If someone gets unexpectedly fired from a job they love, that could well send them into an emotional tailspin that lasts for months or even years. But if someone drops their ice-cream on the sidewalk, in most circumstances it's hard to imagine them being especially sad about it.

The second storytelling function is to reveal the character's underlying personality. The degree and the manner in which characters expresses their sadness shows us what kind of person they are. Are they the type to take things really hard, or do they remain up-beat, shrugging off setbacks? Do they dwell on the past, or put it quickly behind them to face the future?

Symptoms of Sadness

There are many ways characters experience and express their feelings of sadness. We've all been there at one time or another. For the best writing, draw from what you know. That said, there are several common behavior patterns that make effective general templates.

Ordinary sadness. Most of the time, this will do. All else being equal, most people's blues don't spin out of control. It is enough to have your characters express mild sadnesses through dialogue, inner monologue, or narration depending on the novel's point of view.

Symbolic acts. Some people work through their sadness through actions that allow them to directly connect with their feelings. Showing a character placing flowers on a grave, lighting a prayer candle in church, looking over photo albums or other sentimental knick-knacks—or anything along those lines—allows readers to watch the character process their feelings.

Work fixation. Sometimes, instead of focusing on the internal feelings of sadness, people throw themselves into their work. Let your character start working very long hours, taking on new projects, or otherwise keeping themselves extremely busy. In this way, you show the character focusing all their attention and energy on something external, to avoid dealing with their painful internal feelings. It's a temporary solution, but does work well to indicate the depth of pain your character is suffering.

Irritability. Depressive feelings can make some people moody. Consider letting your characters, at least temporarily, become overly sensitive, argumentative, or prone to angry outbursts. Too much of this can make a character unlikable, but the right amount can be very sympathetic.

Withdrawal. A classic symptom of depression is pulling away from pleasurable activities or other routines that once gave a person joy. Your character who went out dancing every Friday night, finds herself staying home in front of the TV. The avid cook starts ordering pizza every night. Characters may also push away the people in their lives, often because they don't want to be seen in what they perceive as a miserable, pitiable state.

Substance abuse. Like the anger stage, depression is a fundamentally emotional stage. However, where anger makes us feel powerful, depression makes us feel powerless. The underlying feelings of sadness are unpleasant, and so too is powerlessness. Depending on your character’s proclivities, he or she may seek to avoid those feelings by using drugs or alcohol.

Insomnia. As anyone who has ever contended with a significant life surprise can attest, sometimes the worst time of the day is night. After all the avoidance involved in work fixation, withdrawal, and substance abuse, you may be looking for a way to force your characters to begin dealing with their feelings. Insomnia may be the way to do it. When your character is surrounded by silence, when they are both physically and emotionally exhausted, that may just be the time they are least able to resist thinking about their miseries.

Suicide. Ultimately, if depressive feelings are too overwhelming, a character may end up believing nothing matters, that there's no point to life. Their inability to deny, argue, or bargain away the consequences of an unpleasant surprise may leave them feeling utterly helpless to control anything in their lives. Unable to see anyway to change the situation, they may seek death as an escape. In books as in real life, this option is not recommended, especially for your protagonists. But if used sensitively, it's certainly something you can employ for the supporting characters in your story.

Balance and Believability

As a stage, writers love depression for its big, dramatic emotions. However, it is also a stage that is easy to misuse in ways that destroy a character’s believability.

The most common misuse I see is overdoing the depression, giving us character responses that are wildly outsized with respect to the situation. Typically this comes across as distasteful melodrama, rather than enjoyable drama. It's not believable, for example, for a character to go on a three day bender over that dropped ice cream cone.

Less common (although almost a cliché in thriller novels) are characters who skip this stage entirely even in the face of major setbacks. Real human beings have emotions. Real human beings are sad when they lose friends and so forth. A writer who fails to give these feelings their due ends up with characters who feel wooden, lifeless, cold, or even ruthlessly all-business. It's one thing for a character under fire to put off their feelings for a calmer time. It's quite another matter to never have those feelings at all.

Remember, depression signals how much the character supposedly cared about whatever it was that changed. Skipping depression is a signal to readers that the character didn't actually care after all. And if they didn't, why should we? Not only does that sabotage your characters, it can kill your stakes as well.

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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