On Writing: Psychological Shock

There are two different kinds of shock that can easily be confused with each other: physiological shock from receiving a grievous injury and psychological shock which is an acute stress reaction to a terrifying or traumatic event. In this article, we’re going to talk about how a writer can communicate that their character is experiencing psychological shock without having to outright state it. There are many tips out there that are useful for writing fight scenes and most of them won’t be helpful when your story requires coupling an action sequence with an acute stress reaction.

So, let’s go below the cut and talk about it.

In this, we’re going to talk about psychological shock from the writer’s perspective and how to use it. However, we are not medical professionals. For a full understanding of psychological shock, more research will be required.

What is an acute stress reaction?

An acute stress reaction comes from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. This could be anything from watching a random passerby get gutted by a mugger, being attacked by a mugger, finding a family member dead in their bed, being the victim of violence, experiencing a betrayal by a close friend, being on the wrong end of a gun, etc.

This experience links into both the fight or flight response and the combat stress response.

Okay, so what does that mean?

If you’ve never experienced an acute stress reaction before to a traumatic event in your own life then manufacturing it on the page may be difficult. Even if you have, reliving the experience in your own mind in order to get it right can be incredibly traumatizing. What is most important to presenting shock in your story is not that you focus entirely on getting the exact symptoms right, it’s getting the feeling right and making sure that the same feeling infuses every aspect of the scene if it’s being written in either First Person or Third Person Limited.

I mean everything from pacing to word choice should be representative of selling the experience to your audience. This is how you make anything in your story authentic. You have to sell it as if you were experiencing it yourself.  Method acting will help; imagining the scene as if it were happening to you will help if you’re willing to go there.

How to do that:

I personally describe shock as feeling sluggish and dazed. I felt far away from my body, far away from reality and what was happening around me. Information came in slow, but my reaction to it was dull and, depending on the situation, nonexistent. In events that happened after, I remembered everything that had happened with perfect clarity but it still felt like I had been on autopilot. For me, how hard I get rocked by shock often depends on what I was expecting going into the event. If I’m completely blindsided, it can take a while to recover. If I was prepared for it or had begun preparations for it, I have less to work through before getting back to the regular world. I apply this to my characters when working through how they feel about events and what parts of the process they get caught in.

You can communicate shock fairly easily through some simple techniques.

Remove the active verbs.

Compare:

Looking down at her hand, Margaret saw blood.

Versus:

Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood.

One of these is fast and I’ll admit, the one with “looking” sounds better, but it also moves more quickly and feels more active. When you want your sentences to move more slowly, to feel more sluggish, it’s worth taking a step back and taking your time because from the character’s perspective everything has slowed down. (Always remember though, time is keeping pace for the other characters in the scene unless they are likewise affected, so keep them moving at normal speeds.)

Long sentences interspersed with short sentences.

Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood. Blood. Whose blood? My blood. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her blood.

By interspersing long sentences with short ones, you can develop an awkward, intentionally jerky feel in the pacing which adds to the sense that the character is feeling out of sorts and distant to what’s happening around them.

Repetition

 Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood. Blood. Whose blood? My blood. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her blood.

We can use repetition of the same word over and over to emphasize that sense of distance; that the character is taking a while to come to terms with what he or she is experiencing. The information is taking a while to sink in. We also add in a denial of the reality present which results from surprise.

“He shot me! You shot me! Derrick! Why would you shoot me?”

Shock can follow your characters for a while, so even at later points in the story it’s important to call back to it through changes in your character’s behavior. So, remember to keep track of that. Whether it’s pain from the wound:

Her cheek hurt. Why would it hurt? Oh right, Margaret thought, she’d been shot.

or from a distinct change in their lifestyle:

I turned my head, hand tightening on the remote. Dad always came home at five after five and he’d give me hell if he caught me watching television. I waited, listening for the familiar thrum of the Ford Taurus as it wound up the driveway, the catch of the headlights on the windows, the blur of green through the white shades. On the tube, Batman laughed but no grinding wheels came up the asphalt. It was just another car passing our front door outside.

Oh. I paused. Oh, right. Dad wasn’t coming home from work today. Dad wasn’t coming home ever again.

Give it a try. See what you turn out.

Happy Writing!

-Michi

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