January 20, 2020

by Angela Ackerman

Have you been in a situation where someone acts erratically, and not in a good way? It takes you by surprise, doesn’t it? Imagine this scenario: you’re sitting around the lunch table with coworkers and pop out a joke. Instead of a wave of laughter, one of your tablemates begins to sob. Or they jump up, shove the table, and walk out.

Your emotional response? Befuddlement (What just happened?) Guilt (What did I say?) Judgement (Wow, she’s unstable.)

It’s always a bit uncomfortable when we can’t follow the logic of cause and effect. A joke should prompt laughter, head shaking and a grin, or maybe if poorly delivered, an awkward beat of silence. These are reactions we expect.

Cause-and-effect is very important in the real world.

This sequence helps us navigate life. When we know what to expect, we know what to do.

Study for a test to pass it.

Pay the mortgage to have a safe place to live.

It also helps us know what not to do.

Drinking too much causes a hangover.

People who leave a paper trail get caught.
If I tell the boss what I really think, I’ll be fired.

Cause-and-effect helps us plan and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Guess who else is hardwired to notice cause-and-effect? Readers.

What helps us navigate life also helps readers navigate the story. In fiction, this means paying attention to your character’s behavior. How they react to situations in the story is EVERYTHING. Their decisions, actions, and choices will tell readers what’s really important, what the character wants and needs, who to root for, and what outcome is ideal.

As authors, we want to make it easy for our audience to “read” our character’s behavior. If a reader is confused about why a character does or says something it might pull them out of the story, or they could grow frustrated or even lose interest.

So how can we always “know” how our characters will behave? By understanding them down to their bones: what they care about, who they are. What they want and fear. What they believe in. By exploring a character’s deeper layers, we learn everything we need to know to determine what they will logically do in any situation. (And knowing this?  WRITER’S GOLD. Your story will practically write itself!)

So, whether you like to plan up front or prefer discovery drafts where characters start out as more mystery than flesh, here are important factors that greatly influence how your character will behave.

Emotional Range

Every person has a baseline when it comes to emotions: reserved or expressive, share feelings openly or keep them to themselves, things like that. Characters are the same. Understanding what this looks like helps us know the difference between “typical reactions” and “escalations.” After all, conflict and friction will push the needle, causing your character to be more emotionally reactive. It’s great for the story too; emotional extremes push them out of their comfort zone, lead to missteps and mistakes, and create MORE tension and conflict.

To figure out your character’s baseline, imagine everyday situations. How do they express emotion when they feel safe and when they do not? What do everyday emotions (contentment, nervousness, joy, worry, and fear) look like for them?

Once you get a feel for how they show typical emotional responses, this serves as a baseline, and when you add a nice dose of pressure or raise the stakes, you will know what more extreme behaviors and reactions should look like. (More on Determining Emotional Range.)


Traits that make up your character’s personality steer their behavior. Take Paul Graham, a character I build using the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. After choosing his personality traits I went through the lists of behaviors and attitudes associated with each to choose ones that fit my vision of him.

Personality traits reveal a character’s moral code, impact how they interact with other characters, how they view the world, and how they go about achieving goals. Here’s a partial screenshot of some of behaviors associated with Paul’s personality traits (via the Character Builder):

Traits that make up your character’s personality steer their behavior. Take Paul Graham, a character I build using the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. After choosing his personality traits I went through the lists of behaviors and attitudes associated with each to choose ones that fit my vision of him. Personality traits reveal a character’s moral code, impact how they interact with other characters, how they view the world, and how they go about achieving goals. Here’s a partial screenshot of some of behaviors associated with Paul’s personality traits (via the Character Builder):

Planning Paul’s positive traits helps me see what behaviors will help him solve problems in the story, and his negative traits (especially his primary flaw) shows what behaviors and attitudes hold him back and keep him from his goal. I can also see what he must change about himself (character arc) if he is to achieve his goal. (More on Planning Personality Traits)


We are all products of our past, and characters are too, meaning a character’s history is a huge factor when it comes to their behavior. The people in their lives before the story began acted as either positive influencers (people who taught the character to be self-sufficient, imparted knowledge, and boosted their self-esteem) or negative influencers (people who made your character doubt themselves and their worth, manipulated them, or hurt them in some way).

Both groups have taught your character how to solve problems, in good ways and bad, which will carry forward to your story.

Another huge aspect of backstory are the character’s past experiences. Good ones give them a positive outlook and worldview, and negative ones create emotional wounds. These painful negative events are transformative: who the character is before a wounding event and who they are afterward are very different. Paul’s wound was finding out his wife was not who she thought she was, and this was the fallout:

Because an emotional wound makes a person afraid that they could be hurt the same way again, they protect themselves by changing their behavior, often in negative ways that we call Emotional Shielding. These dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes are meant to keep people and situations at a distance so they cannot hurt the character. Unfortunately, emotional shielding also keeps a character chained to fear and ultimately gets in the way of what they want most. Here’s a partial list of Paul’s dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes:  

Reading through these, you can see how they are dysfunctional and will cause problems for Paul. Past hurts always reveal emotional sensitivities and fears, which influence a character’s actions.

Character Motivation

While a character enters the story with a lot of baggage and “set” behaviors, one factor can change everything: their motivation. What they want most in the story is powerful. Their goal, if achieved, can fill the hollowness inside them and erase the unmet need that keeps them from feeling happy and complete.

No matter how many hurts your character has endured, what they fear most, or how jaded they are at the world, they can and will change if it means getting what they want most. Here is a sampling of common character motivations:

A strong story goal should not be easy to obtain, and will require the character to transform their mindset and behavior to achieve it. So knowing the goal will also help you know how they will behave, especially as they grow and evolve.

Bottom line, readers want books written by authors who show authority. This authority comes from knowing a character so intimately that every action, choice, and decision rings true. Readers should have no trouble following cause-and-effect.

If you need help with seeing how all the character pieces fit together, try the Character Builder. It contains the largest character-centric database of information available anywhere and prompts you to go deeper step by step, making character building much easier.   

As a reader, does it bother you when characters behave in a way that isn’t explained? Let me know in the comments!

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About Angela

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded second edition) and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative creativity portal for one-of-a-kind tools that give writers exactly what they need to craft unbelievably rich stories and characters. Stop by and give their free trial a spin...writing can be easier! Find Angela on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

January 17, 2020

Readability is a critical part of editing that doesn’t get a lot of attention.  Whether we're imparting instructional analysis or immersing readers in elaborate fantasy worlds, knowing our audience’s preferred reading level is key.

What is readability?

Readability formulas are calculations which are written to assess the reading level necessary for the reader to understand your writing easily.
Readability refers to how easy and enjoyable your writing is for the reader.

Good readability can make a reader quit in paragraph 1 or race through the whole story, so consider readability to make your work sparkle for readers.

Writers Rock When They Meet Reader Expectations

Image by Виктория Бородинова from Pixabay 

Readability grade level testing is common in elementary schools to categorize books. Length of sentence and the complexity of the words are measured, but grade-level appropriateness does not mean what age a person has to be to read it. Adults use preferred readability levels with different types of text.

Writers benefit from aiming at those levels and better engage their readers, but what age level should a writer use?

General Reading Levels are Lower Than you Expect

If you write technical instructional manuals, you may write at the 13th grade level, but the general public has a surprisingly lower average.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics on Adult Literacy in the United States, 21% of adults (about 1 in 5) are below a functional reading level.

Readability scores can help an author assess whether their text is appropriate for the intended audience.

A guideline:

  • For Basic or Below Basic readers, texts should be written at a 6th grade level or lower. 
  • For the General Public, the average reader, texts should be written around an 8th grade level.  

But what if your book is for those avid readers, devouring everything literary? Writing for middle school readers would offend those avid readers, right? 

Surprisingly, no.

Writing at a reader’s preferred level doesn’t push them away, it draws them into your work.  It enhances their reading experience, allowing them to spend their energy on the content and quality of writing, rather than having to work to read.  It enables them to get lost in the story and enjoy it.

Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay 

We Want Our Readers to Keep Reading!

Is your reader a busy professional? Give them easy-to-read content in the limited time they have. A savvy writer takes the extra steps to make their writing clear and easy to understand. It will be appreciated.

Is your reader a graduate student on holiday?  Or a busy mom with a few quiet moments? Allow them a reader’s escape into a tense battle scene or an easy romance, without making them dissect complicated language. Your reader will feel like you are the perfect writing 'host' of their mini getaway.

Is your reader in grade school? Many young readers make breakthroughs and jump quickly though the reading levels, lured along by a good story told well in plain, simple English.

Is your adult reader a limited English speaker or someone who was raised in a culture primarily different from your own? Be sensitive of language barriers that require the reader to work harder to understand your writing. Using appropriate readability will make your writing accessible to a broader audience.

Above all, know your audience! Text-based reading assessments are only a tool to assist your craft. If your audience expects a literary prose with clever turns of phrase and succinct displays of vocabulary, then do so.

How can a writer determine the reading level of their work?

Some tips and resources to help assess your manuscript's readability:

1. Use editing software programs to identify long, sticky sentences, and harder to read passages. Many won’t tell you the reading levels but working on these spots will organically bring the level into General Reading acceptability.

2. Hemingway is an online software that also comes as an app. The program has a free and paid version, but the free was enough for smaller chunks of text when I used it.

When the writer adds their text, Hemingway highlights each sentence with colors to show its reading level. Editing problematic paragraphs within the program helps you achieve a smoother more consistent reading level.

3. Use beta readers to check how logically ideas flow.

Great beta readers will find those confusing places in your book. Run those passages through some readability software. Simplify the work and polish it to it's smoothest readability. Sometimes your readers' confusion comes from the writing itself, rather than the plot.

4. Keep the reader engaged with visuals. Especially for tricky content-dense passages, particularly in non-fiction, use graphs or visuals where appropriate.

5. Use white space as a natural break to focus the reader’s attention.

6. Vary your sentence structure, including shorter passages withing those denser paragraphs to lead your audience. Even when you're writing about complex ideas, sometimes we just need to say what we need to say.

Readability shouldn't detract from one’s style, or keep an author from using higher level vocabulary and structures. In fact, including some of those literary elements in lower reading levels helps readers become more literate! 

To sum up, it is up to you, the writer, to make your words more engaging to the reader.

Concise, jargon and cliche-free writing makes reading a joy to readers. Best of all, it will build a loyal and diverse audience, and build stronger readers in the process.

Is assessing readability part of your editing process? Have you found additional tools to do so? Please share them down in the comments!

Additional Reading: Does your Novel Pass the Readability Test?

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About Kris

Kris Maze has worked in education for 25 years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and Writers in the Storm. Her first YA Science fiction book, IMPACT, arrives in June 2020 and is published through Aurelia Leo.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.

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IMPACT scifi novel by K Maze

Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?

To find out more about IMPACT, click here.

January 15, 2020

by Jenny Hansen

We're two weeks into the new year (and a whole new decade!) and I know plenty of writers who made some lofty resolutions. Here at WITS, we keep it simple and stick to one word to guide our writing journey in the new year.

Frankly, one word is about all I can handle at the beginning of January.

The holidays have usually left me breathless. Someone in my family is often sick over that holiday break (this time it was everyone). My house is predictably a raging mess in early January.

But I can do One Word.

I don't know about you, but I print the One Word post out. I tack my paragraph up somewhere noticeable in my house. I make a drawing out of my word. I ponder it.

It's still a work in progress but I kinda like it.

But here we are mid-January, with 2020 stretching before us -- the Good, the Bad, and the Election. Ugh. I've caught my breath and there are goals to be outlined, and dreams to be chased.

If you are a writer, published or unpublished, I'd guess you’re hoping this New Year will be one that builds your career. So, let's do this!

I challenge you to make at least one concrete writing goal for 2020.

I'll start you off with ideas from one of our early WITS contributors, wise-woman Charlotte Carter. She wrote almost 60 books before she passed on and she knew how to get the work done.

Charlotte's advice for writing success.

1. Make writing a priority. It’s way too easy to get off track if you don’t stick to your guns. Family and friends make demands on you. A good movie opens at the local theater, you promise yourself that you’ll get back to your writing schedule tomorrow. Don’t count on it!

2. Spend time with other writers. No one understands a writer’s fears, failures and successes like another writer. Not even your mother.

3. Don’t let the business get you down. Nora Roberts says, and I believe her, that it was hard to get published when she started writing. It's still hard. Get used to it.

4. Develop a presence on the Internet. Editors do check authors’ blogs and websites. But remember Resolution #1 - don’t spend all of your writing time fussing with your online exposure and forget about your career goals.

5. Improve your craft. Attend workshops and conferences, take classes online, find a critique group that will encourage you and help you to grow. This is part of making your writing a priority.

6. Keep yourself mentally and physically healthy. Yep, you do have to exercise, spend time with friends and family, and find ways to fill your creative well.

7. Read. A lot. Both in and out of the genre you’re writing. I guarantee that won’t be a burden.

Now it's your turn, WITS Readers! Instead of One Word, what is your One Thing? A class you've dreamed of...a story that won't leave you alone? Perhaps you've been waiting to tackle a different genre or start a blog. Share your One Thing with us down in the comments!

Here’s to making one of your dreams come true in 2020...

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About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

January 13, 2020

by Barbara Linn Probst

There’s a special writing area I’ve created for myself. A glass-topped desk with very little to clutter the surface: laptop, coffee mug, desk lamp, and my little “owl with tiara” mascot.

The desk faces a large window that looks out on trees and distant hills. No houses, cars, or people. A black ergonomic chair.

I like having this special, dedicated place. I do other things there—emails, PayPal, cropping my photos—but mostly it’s where I write. The time of day varies, from early morning to late at night; the place, less so. 

I wondered what other people did, what their writing spaces were like. So I asked.

I posted a photo of my desk on a few Facebook groups for writers and invited people to respond with their own photos or descriptions. A lively discussion ensued, with dozens of people taking part.

Here’s what I learned and what I think it means.

It seems there are three workspace camps.

The cave-dwellers.  In one camp were those, like me, who needed quiet and calm. 

  • I have a loft room called the tower where I look out over the trees to the river and the mountains. This is a place where I can hide from the world below.
  • A quiet room. Serene jewel toned walls, comfy chair and tea. I don’t even want music.
  • I prefer more of a cave situation—no-to-little outside stimulation, certainly no music or background talking to distract me.
  • I have a She-Shed. I need complete quiet.
  • I have to have complete silence so I can hear myself think.

Among the cave-dwellers, some found a beautiful view helpful:

  • I've got a beautiful view that keeps me peaceful.
  • I do best outside in sight of natural beauty.
  • Next to the window overlooking our local church and gorgeous old town. Very inspiring.

Others, in contrast, found views distracting.

  • A view would distract me from the images in my mind.
  • No views. I need to focus and am afraid if I looked out the window I’d start taking pictures instead of writing.

The white-noisers.  In another camp were the people who concentrated best in coffee shops and places filled with lots of background noise.

  • I like the anonymity within the usually jovial background.
  • I go to a very busy cafe where they let you linger and everyone has laptops. There’s something about the vibe. 
  • I like writing in Starbucks. I like that it forces a couple of hours of focus before I've overstayed my welcome and need to pack up and go home.
  • I think there is something about the shared work environment, the white noise, and the lack of domestic distractions that works really well.

The anywhere-and-everywhere writers.  A third group wrote wherever and whenever they could. For some, this was because it was the only realistic option. Others simply stopped and wrote when an idea struck them.

  • Literally anywhere. I’ve learned not to be picky.
  • I write when and where I can—in my office, yes, but also at the kitchen table, at the library, at the ballet school, between rounds of History Bee. I take what I get.
  • It doesn't matter if it's home, in a coffee shop, a hotel room, a park or if it's serene, chaotic, noisy, or a mess as long as I can sit with my laptop on my lap.
  • In my car, on the open. I scribble on a legal pad at stoplights and record dialogue on my phone. Anytime. Anyplace.
  • I can write anywhere I get an idea, thanks to dictation/notes on my phone and a lightweight laptop I carry everywhere.

Three different answers, right? Or maybe not.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that everyone was doing the same thing. In one way or another, they were creating a sealed-off environment where the world of the story could dominate, rather than the world of ordinary life.

They did this by entering a special place or a special time. Three hours every Monday night at Starbucks. A corner of the basement—“it’s cluttered, but it’s mine.” A special armchair or a space in an unused bedroom. During the hour-long train ride to work.

In order to enter the story world, they had to subdue or transform the sensory stimulation of the regular world.

Through silence, noise-cancelling headphones, music, or the ambient sounds of strangers, each person erected her own auditory shield—a protective ring, a barrier, that let them focus on the interior world of their imagination.

Visual stimulation seemed less problematic. Perhaps because it’s easier to stay focused on a laptop or notebook, resisting the urge to look elsewhere, than it is to block out the intrusive sounds that reach us without our choosing to attend to them.

In the old Star Trek movies, a deflector shield was raised to ward off incoming energy that was vibrating at a frequency other than that of the shield itself—in other words, to repel distractions as well as dangers.

When we’re trying to write, incoming impressions that aren’t relevant to the story world need to be repelled—so we create our personal shields.  One person summed it up well: “Above all, a place where I’m alone with my thoughts. I can be in a crowded place as long as I don’t know anyone else or get distracted.”

It’s the internal place that really matters. The external place is just the container. Without that dedicated internal place—that special state of immersion in the world of our characters—the most exquisite, well-appointed office won’t necessarily help. Sometimes the external place, with its accessories and associations, does help us shift into the internal one.

At other times, when we don’t have access to the time or place where we believe we write best, we find another way. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted inside her car when the weather was too hot in the New Mexico desert. At a workshop I attended, renowned author Alice Hoffman told us that she often writes on her iPhone. 

We write—when, where, and because we must.

What about you?

Where do you write best? What are the key elements of that environment? Is there a place that’s surprisingly conducive to writing for you—a place that might seem odd to others, but works for you?

What are the essential “writing shields” you need?

Are you getting what you need, or are there small changes you can make in your writing space that would help?

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About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, coming in April 2020 from the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and will be the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To pre-order or learn more, please visithttp://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

Queen of the Owls by Barbara Linn Probst

A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life.

This novel asks the question: How much is Elizabeth willing to risk to be truly seen and known?

Click here to read more, or to pre-order the book.

January 10, 2020

Julie Glover

A minister, a priest, and a rabbi are walking down a dark alley -- no, this is not a joke, but hang with me here -- when an eight-foot, three-headed monster jumps out, roars, and bares his sharp teeth and claws.

The minister throws a punch.
The priest runs.
The rabbi can't seem to move.

See? I told you it wasn't a joke. It's acute stress response; that is, the way our bodies and minds handle the presence of an immediate threat.

One fights.
One flees.
One freezes.

You've heard of those, but how can writers apply this knowledge to our stories? How can the fight-flight-freeze response be used to ratchet up tension and guide action for our characters?

First, the Visceral Reaction

Physiologist Walter Cannon coined the phrase "fight or flight," back in the 1920s, to describe the adrenaline rush and response people exhibit when faced not only with physical emergencies, but psychological ones as well. In recent years, scientists added a third option: tonic immobility, or "freeze."

This video explains these reactions well. (And yes, there's a quick sales plug for the video's creator at the end.)

That list of symptoms alone can help us better write our characters' acute stress responses! Which of these might your protagonist exhibit?

  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Need to urinate
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Butterflies in stomach
  • Cold hands
  • Sweaty palms
  • Trembling and/or weak hands and legs
  • Tension in thighs, neck, or shoulders
  • Negative memories
  • Tunnel vision / loss of peripheral vision
  • Reduced ability to read facial expressions
  • Dizziness / feeling one might faint (but they won't)

Then Fight, Flight, or Freeze

In The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes -- and Why, journalist Amanda Ripley shared how people responded to disasters, from an explosion to Hurricane Katrina to Tower 1 on 9/11 and more.

Fight is actually an uncommon response, with fleeing and freezing more likely. Freezing can be seen both in denying the severity of a situation and/or dithering so long about what to do that opportunities to effectively deal with the disaster pass, leaving the worst option as the inevitable one.

So let's say your main character is facing a disaster -- be it an alien invasion, an inferno, or high schoolers storming the cafeteria for the last of the Twinkies. Starting with the visceral reaction:

Gayle's mouth went dry, her heart sped up to a gallop, and her knees buckled.

Then what? Is your protagonist the type to fight, flee, or freeze? Which answer determines what happens next, as well as the pace of the action.


Gayle didn't have time to think. Didn't allow herself to think. Adrenaline poured into her veins. She dove forward and slashed at the laser-wielding alien. If she was going down, she'd take it with her.

Although fight is an uncommon response, this is fiction and we like kick-butt heroes. Plus, an ensuing fight definitely puts tension on the page.


At the sight of the laser-yielding alien, Gayle's brain yelled, "Run!" Her feet obeyed. Dodging tables and chairs, she sprinted across the room.

Gayle heard crashes and shots and screams behind her, but all she could see was the door ahead. She had to get to reach that exit.

Flight is a more common response, and you can see the tension and conflict her choice creates. Is everyone else in the area running for the door, causing a logjam at the exit? Might the alien chase after her? Could she stumble? Injure herself? Find the door barred or locked?


Gayle couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't think. Al-al-alien. That right there was the stuff of science fiction, a creature from the Star Wars cantina, an impossibility. Only there it was, not only three-dimensional and fully present but shooting lasers at people around her.

Numbly, she watched people fall. Were they dead or just stunned?

Her brain struggled to process what was happening. She was caught between two worlds, the real one she'd been in moments ago and this surreal one where nothing made sense. There had to be a link between the two, even if that link was only Gayle herself.

The alien stomped toward her, its sinister eyes bulging, green teeth bared, weapon raised. Gayle's jaw dropped open and her feet weighed a million pounds each, gluing her to the floor.

If she just stands there, she might get squashed like a bug. But you can keep tension up. Does someone rescue her, but it's not someone she wants rescuing her? Could the alien kidnap rather than kill her? Might she discover that silence and immobility are the only way to avoid an attack? (Looking at you, The Quiet Place.)

Combining Responses

You don't have to choose only fight, flight, or freeze. Your character might go through two or all of them.

Real-life case in point: My mother has a phobia of frogs, possibly due to a near-drowning event in her childhood. Anyway, I was in college when I saw the depth of her fear up close and personal. A frog had gotten into our forest-surrounded home, and my mother's acute stress response caused her to shut down quickly and thoroughly when confronted with a harmless amphibian that could fit in the palm of my hand.

She was frozen. But I snapped her out of her trance and got her to flee. Mind you, my first few few requests did not work. I literally had to get in her face and yell, "Get out of here!" But then she startled and scurried away, and I returned Senor Frog to his natural habitat outside. Crisis averted.

When you write a combination, you'll likely need another trigger to change the first response to a new one. For example:

  • Your character flees, but then hears a child's cry and runs back to fight.
  • Your character surges forward to fight, gets knocked down, and freezes.
  • Your character freezes, but a glancing blow awakens their desire to fight back.
  • Or like my scenario: Your character freezes until prodded by another character to flee.

Scene and Sequel

The fight-flight-freeze response is driven by the amygdala, a structure of neurons in the brain linked to fear, pleasure, and aggression.

What we actually think about a situation, however, involves different parts of the brain. The cognitive processes of evaluation, self-regulation, and behavioral goals happen in the frontal lobes, parts not as active when you're in panic mode.

If you're familiar with the scene-sequel structure, originally proposed by Dwight Swain, you may already see how these differing brain functions align with that model.

When our character goes through a jarring event, their immediate stress response is part of the scene. It's what's happening right then and there and how they react. Since it's amygdala-driven, hold off on describing the processing one goes through later to make sense of what's happening and to determine the next goal. It's in the sequel where you have that cognitive processing, and that may involve a few lines or a whole chapter.

So when it comes to fight-flight-freeze, you're not likely to see something like this:

Bob's feet sank into the floorboards, and his heart throbbed against his ribs. How had she found out? He'd been so careful to hide all the receipts. To keep a separate bank account. To use a fake name whenever possible.

Maybe he could get his wife back. They could go to counseling. That's it--he'd schedule a counseling appointment in the morning.

Um, no. That second paragraph is unlikely to happen right away. Your character will need more time hanging out with their stress response, which is good news for your reader. Because that's more tension, more wondering how things will go, more continuing to read to find out.

Exactly how fast your character moves from the fight-flight-freeze scene to the executive-function sequel depends on who they are.

Different characters or even the same character in different seasons will recover differently. For a quick example, imagine the acute stress response recovery time for Sarah Connor before and after her encounter with the Terminator.

Where on the spectrum between these women is your character? Write to that timing.

How have you used fight, flight, or freeze in your own story? What more do you want to know about using acute stress response to create conflict and reveal character?

"Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor," Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
"Walter Cannon: Homeostasis, the Fight-or-Flight Response, the Sympathoadrenal System, and the Wisdom of the Body," Brain Immune
"Understanding the stress response," Harvard Health Publishing

About Julie

Julie Glover writes mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart® and is now on sale! When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.

Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


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