Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

How to write shock

Posted: July 26, 2015 in Writing

A portion of this was originally posted to my fb page.

How to write shock

His knees went out as he fell…
His bowels turned to ice water…
She gasped…
I stared in disbelief…
A sudden chill swept through Paul, as if a cold wind cut through….
When writing shock you can do better than tropes and stereotypes, yet they exist for a reason. There are dozens of different types of shock and a thousand variable combinations. Every character is going to react differently and the same character won’t respond the same way twice. And within all of those variables will be common themes – cold, sudden awareness of the gut, knees give out, time slows down, people hyper-focus, the mind rejects information, the sound of other’s voices echo and fade with your pulse, and numbness. Just not all of these in one person for one moment during an event.

Let’s talk a bit about the different types of shock.

Emotional shock – hearing of a loved one’s untimely death, an unexpected relationship breakup, losing a child in a store, seeing violence that the character is not accustomed too.
Physical/medical shock – receiving a traumatic and unexpected injury, being hit with a concussive blast wave, a sudden loud noise.
Intellectualized shock – having information suddenly line up to reveal something bad, betrayal, grief.
Delayed shock – the numbness of knowing you should be in shock or grief but feeling nothing until a sudden moment when it all hits – ptsd.
Retriggered shock – seeing, hearing, or smelling something that sends you back in time to the moment, ptsd.
Compounded shock – when a series of incidents or injuries suddenly overwhelm you.
Cultural shock – your brain fills in blanks when you have no point of reference.

Shock is never simple, by its nature it requires that all of your characters defenses have been destroyed in an instant leaving the person reeling and in …shock.

An unplanned cross country move is considered to be as stressful as a death of a loved one or a divorce. The lack of familiar places and people erodes a person’s ability to process stress and can compound until the person breaks. And that is the reality of shock – for the length of time you are in shock you are broken. The old fashioned mental breakdown is shock – the inability to cope with and function through stress.

Knowing this, and wanting to write a character in shock from an event, you need to plan a reaction arc for the character. If you prefer to write without outline, you need to consider the arc in the rewrite.
1st is the shock from a physical or an emotional source.
2nd keep track of the environment, including other characters, around the character because the character will be oblivious.
3rd use the environment and other characters to show that your character is disassociated and …in shock.
4th give a clear cut end to the shock – be it a fade to black, a slap across the face, sudden clarity
5th and understand that true shock rewrites a person on a primal level. The character changes or it wasn’t shock.
Now, focusing on number one, a character hit by a stray bullet during a robbery they never noticed will react completely different that a soldier hit during a fire fight – the civilian may look down as the red blooms and try to figure out what happened while the soldier doesn’t notice he was hit until after the shooting stops. A character walking in on her husband having sex with her best friend will react differently that a woman walking in on her husband raping their 4 year old child – the betrayal of an affair can invoke sudden disbelief and then rage while walking in on something heinous can cause violent puking or an instant psychotic break. And seeing a commercial airplane crash in person when you don’t know anyone on board is not going to hit as hard as seeing a news report of the same crash and realizing that your loved one is on board – watching a plane crash when you intellectually know that people are dying is a punch to the gut “wrong” moment that gives way to disbelief; the moment of realizing someone is dead while watching an intellectualize retelling on the news is a trigger for disassociating and shutting down.

The symptoms of shock are confused when writers combine medical shock with emotional shock.

Medically, untreated shock kills. Emotionally, untreated shock can induce long term mental issues.

And yes, your character can have both happening at the same time, but trying to write both co-morbid can lead to tangled messy descriptions that leave the reader unimpressed.

Medical shock from physical injury is by definition a sudden drop in blood pressure. The why varies but the symptoms are pretty consistent: pale clammy skin accompanied by rapid thready pulse with rapid shallow breathing – all pointing to low blood pressure. The person may exhibit dizziness, pass out, become confused, belligerent, or panicked, their lips may go white, their face can lose color (darker skinned people turn grey), and they might clutch their chest in a classic appearance of a heart attack.

Emotional / psychological shock from seeing something horrific, witnessing a betrayal, or learning of a grief-inducing fact occurs when someone is made suddenly and acutely aware of their own vulnerability – even if they do not notice at the moment. That’s key – shock is the minds way of protecting you from the fact that you are powerless. Shock is a protective buffer that damages. Think of it as a reflexive flinch away from a spider that sends the car of your life spinning out of control.

Emotional shock is a shutdown mechanism that is supposed to buy a person time to process, but people don’t and so shock can be retriggered.

Writers have a character witness a murder and the character exhibits symptoms of physical shock not emotional shock because in the moment a person’s subconscious can devastate a person’s body. For that brief flash of emotional pain before the shock takes hold, the blood pressure can crash, the heart can skip a beat or two, the system can completely flood with adrenalin and if the physical stress continues the body can die – so shock is triggered as a buffer to buy time.

To write a non-injury induced state of shock it helps to understand that the basic triggers are unexpected, unprepared, powerless, repeated, relentless, cruel, humiliating, or remembered.

Now, think about witnessing that plane crash: what happens when a person sees a second plane crash? They either flash back to the first crash and retrigger or they don’t go into shock the second time because they’ve seen this before. Same with other reasons for emotional shock.

Soldiers and medics get programmed to run toward danger where others would go into shock simply because that flood of adrenalin overrides the stress and they have compartmentalized the reality that would induce shock, hence the high rate of delayed shock also known as ptsd.

Going back to the example of walking in on a pedophile: certain events will trigger an instant, unblockable urge to puke or pee or crap – the sudden need to purge. This requires that the witnessed event to abhorrently taboo – like the rape of a child, body parts, genocide. It is a response that is culturally and personally dependent on internalized definitions of allowed, normal evil being breached or expanded suddenly. The sudden purge response is not shock, though shock may follow, it does not threaten or take power from the witness and can easily morph into rage instead of shock. And while we’re on the subject – you can have a sympathic response to someone else’s purge reflex – like yawning it’s contagious.

One last bit on cultural shock – your character cannot describe or interpret things they have no point of reference to. A fellow writer friend recently described walking in a college hallway, seeing some interesting geometric art, having the disorienting moment of realizing that it was words in an unfamiliar language, and then stopping to watch how others present glanced at the “art” and glanced away without ever really seeing it. I once picked up a rock on a beach and threw it at an annoyed bird only to realize that it was an egg, I was standing on the camouflaged nest, and the bird had a reason to be pissed at me. That was a gut-sink moment that left acid in my mouth and tears in my eyes – shock.

Your character cannot be shocked by things he/she cannot culturally reference. If Captain Joe Spitefir has never seen the tall, blue, reptilliod aliens young, he cannot be shocked when they bring out platters of small fish to eat – until an alien tells him that there will be no truce because he just ate the kidnapped young of their enemy…

For writers: the take-away on shock is it really helps to sit down and break the moment down into the micro before you write or rewrite the scene. Shock should be used as a pivot point for a character and not as a quick tension builder to be forgotten in the next scene. Breaking the moment into the quarter second micro allows you to consider the event in the time dilation hyper focused manner of someone entering shock and gives you the freedom to explore the reaction and what is being blocked so that you know how the character is affected, effected, and changed moving forward. Plus, it lets you decide what needs to be said versus having to rewrite to fit later.