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Script Angel: Characters Under Stress

Script Editor Hayley McKenzie gives a handy guide to the psychology of stress to help really put your characters through the ringer.

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow her on Twitter @scriptangel1.

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We all know that in screenwriting our inciting incident causes a crisis of some kind, whatever genre we're working in, but do you really understand the psychology of what follows? Here's a handy guide to the psychology of stress to help really put your characters through the ringer.


What is a crisis? A crisis occurs when events of an extraordinary nature trigger extreme tension and stress within an individual which require major decisions or actions to resolve. In storytelling, that threat could be big or small. It could be a threat to our marriage (Drama: Hope Springs), a threat to our own survival (Horror: You're Next or Thriller: Gravity), a threat to a group of others (Action: Die Hard) or a threat to the world (Action: Independence Day). The crisis must be unexpected but that surprise may come from the character being in denial. In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis (Heath Ledger) falling in love with Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) wouldn't be a crisis (or unexpected) if he wasn't in denial about his sexuality.

The need to take action. A crisis may threaten important goals or simply threaten the status quo, but unless the character acts to make a change, the crisis cannot be averted. If Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) don't act to save their marriage in Hope Springs, it will be over. If John McClane doesn't act, people will die. An immediate decision or action is needed to stop things getting worse.

Life is stressful . Psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe created a list of 43 events that can cause stress. Here's the top 10: Death of a spouse, divorce, separation, imprisonment, death of close family, injury or illness, marriage, dismissal from work, reconciliation, retirement.

Stress causes biological changes. Our physical reactions to stress are determined by our biological history and the need to respond to sudden dangers that threatened us when we were still hunters and gatherers. In this situation, the response to danger was ‘fight or flight.’ Our bodies still respond in this way, releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

Stress can be a good thing. A certain level of stress may be necessary in order to help you prepare for something or to actually do it. The stress itself will keep you alert and focused. The hormones released by stress can give you a quick burst of energy, decreased sensitivity to pain, increase in immunity and a heightened memory.

Stress can bring out the best in us. The stress of the crisis can force you to face the problem head-on, turn to friends or family for help and support, make us more altruistic and become more self aware.

Stress can bring out the worst in us. We might go into denial, repressing the perceived threat, attempting to remove all thoughts and feelings associated with the trigger. We might project our fears and anxieties onto those closest to us. We might try to displace or redirect the feelings about a threatening situation onto a different, less threatening one. Stress can make us passive aggressive, acting with hostility to those around us.

Knowing what buttons to press to stress your character and understanding what your character is going through psychologically can help to give your story real emotional power. Putting them in situations that stress them and dramatizing the very best and worst of their personality helps to create real, flawed characters we can believe in and want to watch as they struggle through the story you've perfectly tailored for them.

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