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.
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
- 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.)
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
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.