The Fifth Stage of Surprise: Acceptance
by Jason Black
This article is the last 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 depression. This month, we’ll look at acceptance.
Acceptance is when your characters finally integrate the reality of their past experiences, either good or bad, into their understanding of their own lives. Strictly speaking, acceptance is a moment in time. The importance of this moment cannot be underestimated, either for characters or for real human beings.
However, when people talk about acceptance, they’re usually talking about the period of time after such a moment, because that’s when people display changes in behavior, emotion, or attitude. Often, stories reach their climax in this period.
Nevertheless, both facets of acceptance are important to the novelist, so we will consider both.
Acceptance as a Moment
This facet of acceptance is an epiphany. A character’s moment of clarity and insight into how they relate to the world now, in contrast to how their life may have been before.
An acceptance moment is a turning point. Prior to it, the character had an incorrect or incomplete view of how they relate to the world, based in beliefs that were true before the unpleasant surprise that kicked off their five-stage response. These beliefs aren’t necessarily true anymore. After the moment, the character’s view has come into alignment with what’s true in their world.
It is quite literally a pivotal moment in your story, and for it to have the resonance with the reader that it has for the character, you have to do it justice within your narrative. Acceptance moments are among the most important a character will experience. Yet, too often I see clients so eager to get on with the exciting climax of their story that is about to come, they forget to make any particular mention of the huge breakthrough their character just had.
Don’t skip it. Don’t gloss over it with a quick sentence or two. You may not need a whole chapter or even a whole scene, although some genres and stories can benefit from a deep exploration of the moment. But please, pause at least a little to let both character and reader reflect on what just happened.
Acceptance moments may come quickly or they may sneak up on a character. They may be a crashing wave or a slowly rising tide, depending on the nature of the unpleasant surprise. An unpleasant surprise whose consequences are immediate and obvious—losing your job; your house burning down—usually creates acceptance moments that are obvious to the characters themselves. When they reach acceptance, they know it. Unpleasant surprises whose consequences take time to be felt—recovery from debilitating illness; getting dumped from a long term relationship—bring subtler modes of acceptance. With these, the character typically doesn’t recognize that they have reached acceptance until some while after it has happened.
Crashing wave moments take care of themselves. There’s an obvious place to put them within your narrative. But the rising tide acceptances, these can challenge the novelist. The best way I know to express them is to create a symbolic moment at which the character can recognize the shift to acceptance. Let them realize they have dealt with recent events in a way they couldn’t have while they were still in the first four stages.
The Narrative Purpose of the Moment
Whether quick or slow, the purpose of an acceptance moment is to indicate that your characters have become the most fully-functional version of themselves. They may be differently functional than before, but nevertheless they are the best they can now be, at least with respect to the hurts they suffered at the start of the five stages.
For your readers, the moment indicates that the character is fully in command of his or her abilities. It doesn’t mean they will get everything right thenceforth. They can still make mistakes. It only means they won’t be making mistakes based on a flawed understanding of how they relate to the world.
Acceptance as a Period
Technically, the acceptance period never ends. Barring a relapse to old ways, the character’s new-found understanding of themselves will last until they die. For the novelist, however, it only lasts till the end of the story.
The beginning part is essentially a return to life. The character had their normal life before the unpleasant surprise. Then the surprise threw everything a-kilter. In acceptance, the character has reached their new normal, and thus may fully resume the business of life or of whatever the story demands of them.
Emotionally, characters usually shed the negative emotions that dominated their life during the earlier stages. They may also experience transitory feelings of elation, joy, or euphoria from the simple relief of being out of the horrible first four stages. Only after these initial emotions have passed will the character—and those around them—be able to learn what sort of a person has emerged from the five stages.
Behaviorally, this period is when the character becomes more effective in realizing their goals than they were before. While their view of how they relate to the world was out of sync with reality, they were bound to make poor choices and take incorrect actions, and thus have a lot of trouble achieving the goals the story sets for them. Now that they’re in sync, they won’t be making those mistakes anymore. Their choices and actions are bound to be better than before. In short, this is when the character becomes wiser, smarter, or just plain more crafty about how they’re approaching the story’s challenges.
The Narrative Purpose of the Period
Dramatically, the purpose of this period is for the character to apply the wisdom gained in the acceptance moment in order to make good choices they couldn’t have made before, usually in pursuit of victory in the story’s climax.
There is a clear limitation here: these good choices must relate to the theme behind the five-stage response they just completed. Reaching acceptance in one area does not automatically grant wisdom in others. For example, surviving a bad break-up and realizing why he can’t seem to keep a romance alive will not magically enable aspiring NASCAR driver “Wheels” McKenzie to understand what he’s doing wrong on the racetrack.
Unless, of course, the novelist has arranged it that way. Unless the novelist has found a way to make them different aspects of the same underlying problem. Perhaps the reason Wheels can’t break into NASCAR’s big-time and the reason he can’t keep a relationship are both because he lacks patience. On the track, he makes his move too early, telegraphs his intentions, and gives other drivers the chance to cut him off. With women he pushes too hard, scares them off, and gets dumped. Reaching acceptance about this after a particularly painful dumping could well let him establish a new relationship between himself and the world, one which enables him to succeed on both fronts.
If at all possible, look for a way to achieve a unity of personal- and plot-related breakthrough. Because the best five-stage responses, the ones that resonate most strongly with our readers, are usually the ones in which characters achieve their outer goals due to things they have learned about themselves the hard way.
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