asked: I feel like I’m using the phrase “widening eyes” or any variation of it too much. Are there other ways that are just eluding me?
Let’s just start by saying that—Surprise!—emotions are complicated and not everyone feels them or exhibits them in the same way. There are, however, more ways to exhibit surprise than the old stand-by of widening eyes.
What is surprise?
Surprise (n): A feeling of astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected.
Other things to note about surprise:
- It’s one of seven universal expressions of emotion (the other six are disgust, sadness, joy, contempt, anger, and fear).
- It is a neutral expression, meaning that it displays neither positive nor negative attributes. The measurement of these attributes as positive or negative is known as an emotion’s valence.
- It’s evolutionary, physical purpose seems to be to take in as much information as possible in as short a time as possible.
Keep in mind as you write that the intensity of the surprise and the emotions that follow a character’s initial surprised reaction are situational and extremely personal to the character, though there are a few general things to remember about surprise:
- It is brief. While everyone is going to react differently to a given situation, one thing on which we can all agree is that true surprise is a short-lived emotion. Unlike emotions like anticipation or awe, which might be significantly prolonged, surprise is practically a blip on the radar. Bear this in mind as you write: Whatever physical signs of surprise your character exhibits, they will only have that particular physical expression of emotion for a moment.
- Surprise segues into other emotions within seconds. Surprise is a gateway emotion. It doesn’t stick around long, so it’s almost instantly replaced with the reaction emotion, which might actually be the more important emotion of the two. It is important to register the surprise of a character, but it may also be vital for the reader to know what that surprise becomes because it will likely color the character’s surprise. For example, if a character is surprised then angry, that anger is probably more important to spend time describing than the surprise.
- Hiding surprise is not an option. You’re right to want to display surprise physically; it is one of several emotions that are nigh impossible to conceal. A few common physical signs of surprise:
- Eyebrows up and curved
- Upper eyelids raise to open our eyes wider
- Quick breath (not always)
- Open mouth; jaw drops (not always)
- Horizontal wrinkles appear on forehead
- If it’s prolonged surprise, it’s shock. Shock, also known as acute stress reaction, is a different animal altogether. There are not common facial expressions for shock, though certainly the stereotype is a blank, expressionless face. A character in shock may seem as though he or she is in a daze, unable to react quickly or see (sometimes physically) the situation clearly. Accelerated heart rate, sweating, nausea, and flushing are also common in sufferers of shock. These symptoms are not present in the expression of surprise, but may become present soon after where surprise has segued into shock. Like in the common saying goes, “After the initial surprise, shock sets in”.
- Surprised and startled are two different things. To be startled is to have an instinctual, fearful reaction to external stimuli.
Since feeling startled involves fear and fear is a separate emotion from surprise, your character will likely have slightly different physical expressions of their emotion. A startled character will likely cringe, flinch, or go into a crouch. This cringe is just as instinctive as the hallmarks of surprise, but it is not indicative of surprise. A startled reaction is its own special thing.
“Most psychologists consider startle
to be different from any human emotions, more like a reflex to intense sudden stimulation. The startle expression is unique.” (x
So, how can you vary your description of surprise? Here are a few suggestions:
- Try using the other well-known facial cues besides widened eyes. Open mouth, dropped jaw, and sharp intake of breath are nothing to shake a stick at, but “wrinkles of surprise appeared on her forehead” has a certain magic to it, don’t you think? No one talks about wrinkles.
- Surprise may not be limited to the face. There are other body parts that might be busy showing the character’s surprise. What if your character dropped whatever he was holding or missed her mouth with her spoonful of hot soup? What if your character’s knees locked? What if his fists tightened or she jumped back from whatever surprised her? Try expanding your search for physical reaction to the rest of the body for variety.
- Do it with dialogue, onomatopoeia, or other noises. Instead of talking about widening eyes, get your characters to talk for you. Have them express their surprise through cursing or various euphemisms. This sort of reaction will likely come during the time the character is transitioning from surprise to their reaction emotion, which is why we have such a huge variety of ways to express our surprise through words. From “oh my lanta!” to “ACK!” to “bloody hell!”, a character’s surprise might be best exhibited via dialogue. If it’s onomatopoeia you’re going for, what sound does he or she make? Maybe your character always yelps in surprise, or squeaks or barks or gasps dramatically. Don’t discount the occasional noise in lieu of dialogue if the situation warrants it.
- Do it with quirks. Maybe your character always hiccups in surprise or cracks her toes or clasps his hands. Does he pale? Does she get goosebumps? If your character always does these things when he or she is surprised, you may be looking at a quirk. This quirk is sort of a trademark of the character, and when you describe it in association with an emotion, the reader will come to understand without having to be told outright every time that when the character starts hiccuping or blanches, he or she has just been surprised.
The best way by far to learn to describe an emotion is to research it thoroughly. With that in mind, check out these awesome resources to learn more about surprise:
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