FFF … Again

It’s not being rude, honest. In fact, I’ve talked about it before. It?

The human reaction cycle: Freeze, Flight, Fight.

Freeze is always first:

Stand still and the danger won’t see me. It also gives time to assess the situation, to decide whether to slowly sink down or sidle across to the darker shadows and away from the danger.

Flight is second:

If they see you and the danger feels strong, run and run and keep running until safety is reached. There’s no time while running to do much in the way of thinking or planning, not even rationalising. It’s just run for your life, or get et.

Fight is the final option:

There’s no way out but to fight for your life. And it doesn’t matter how well-trained we are, the time in a fight is unclear and messy. It’s only about finding a way to get this danger out of our way and get back to our lives (which might mean knocking the enemy down until we can run (2) and hide (1)).

But the initial reactions always fall in order: Freeze, Flight, Fight. After that, it’s desperation to maintain life at all costs.

The other important thing to remember (I’m talking about writers and storytelling, here, so it’s about getting it right for the readers to believe) is FAD.


Not that sort of fad. No, this is the automatic stage of response to something that motivates a reaction.

Feelings come first (often with a freeze moment). You touch the stove and feel it. Even microseconds before the action of pulling your hand away, and then swearing like a pirate. FAD = Feelings, Actions, Dialogue.

It’s the order of things that makes it real. Getting it right puts the reader in the pilot seat of believing the actions and reactions.

Recently, I came across (okay, not that recently, but time is mine to bend as I will) something a bit different. On reading, it sounds right, but doesn’t quite fit with the FFF or FAD.

What am I talking about?

The MRU (Motivation, Reaction unit to you), which has a motivating moment that causes a reaction and put together, it’s a unit (or a beat, if you like). And the time for internalisation (the thinking bit) is between the two.

The motivating incident happens, the character thinks about it, and then acts on the decision made …

It almost feels right, but … but, but, but –

The incident that causes a freeze is the motivation, and the freeze is the moment to assess the danger, so is that a MRU on its own, a sub-beat within the beat? Or is it the whole of the freeze moment (the decision to freeze) … but how can it be if the FFF changes to a decision to take flight, or assesses that the time for flight has passed and now it’s down to fight?

Or: Are we always making assessments and decisions, even in the midst of chaos? And if that’s the case, do we not sense it while we’re in the gravitational pull of that chaos?

Most important, how do we write this without sounding like manic maniacs?

Seriously, any thoughts to help with this insanity? Or maybe I’ll put it down to the brain on overdrive while the house is full of visitors and I don’t have any time to make decisions, let alone understand how I reached ’em.

Bah. Time for icecream.

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

29 thoughts on “FFF … Again

  1. Oh, FFS, cagedunn, I thought I was starting to get the hang of writing and now you want me to think about it as well? ๐Ÿ™‚
    Seriously, Fight always has to include the possibility of ‘kill’, because sometimes that’s the only way to survive.
    Re ‘The motivating incident happens, the character thinks about it, and then acts on the decision made’ may ring true sometimes but I fear that, more often than not, there’s not a lot of thinking that happens in that space so much as dialing through learned responses from the past.
    ‘Are we always making assessments and decisions, even in the midst of chaos?’ Of course we are, unless we’re frozen, like ice cream, in which case we will inevitably be eaten. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Sorry, deepest apologies. I agree about the learned responses, and it’s relatively easy to know my own responses, but a character isn’t me (well, shouldn’t be me) so I take a bit of time during editing to find ways to make the story honest, as real as it can be, and emotionally connected to the human at the other end.
      I dream, of course I dream, and I dream of icecream at the moment.

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    • I totally agree re the ‘motivating incident’ – where imminent personal danger is involved we react. How we react depends on learned responses and habit. Many years ago, I was driving home from work when I lost my brakes just as I was trying to slow for a stop sign. On the other side of the stop sign was six lanes of peak hour traffic. I remember a moment of utter disbelief as I pumped the brake and nothing happened. After that time really did slow as I used the gears [manual car] to slow me enough to weave through the traffic until I reached the other side and could actually stop. My point is that none of this involved conscious /thought/. Habit = using my gears to slow the car even as I applied the brake. Learned response [of using gears] gained from riding a motor bike and translated to the car. Put the two together and I didn’t freeze BUT I don’t remember feeling afraid either. Not then. Fear hit once I stopped the car and got out. That’s when I thought about what could have happened. Before then, however, there was no conscious decision making going on and precious little thought.
      I’m not sure about ‘assessments and decisions, even in the midst of chaos’. I believe the subconscious may be making super fast assessments at a very basic level, but I’m pretty sure the conscious doesn’t kick in until after it’s all over. Conscious thought is simply too /slow/ when it comes to life or death situations.
      I suspect that conscious decision making only occurs if the danger is either not imminent or not personal – e.g. seeing someone take out a knife and threaten someone else. Do you tackle the person? Do you ring for help? Do you shout for help given that shouting could draw the assailant’s attention to yourself? That’s decision making and it happens because the threat is not to oneself. That means there’s time to choose the ‘best’ course of action.
      Would love to know how trained soldiers process combat situations.

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      • Conscious thought? No, not conscious thought, just the brain doing what it knows to do in a specific situation, even if it has to bend a little to make the best of a bad situation.
        The thinking/thought/conscious things may happen after the action caused by the event, especially in life-threatening situations, but everyday situations? That may be different, is different, because we have time.
        I also have been in an incident with a vehicle, caravan attached, when life was at odds with the situation (looking at the back of the caravan from the front of the car while flying through the air. I let go of the steering wheel and crossed my arms over my chest, then when the car stopped – halfway down a steep embankment – I closed the door on my hand, but didn’t pull the hand away; opened the door first!, and then collapsed to the ground).
        It’s not a matter of conscious versus unconscious – it’s what motivates the reaction to the event, whether subconscious (the rapid response) or conscious (the time to pick and choose), but in the end, the order of events is the same – it’s our perception of it that feels different. I think. I’ve picked up bits and pieces over the years, but Will Storr, Science of Storytelling, talks about some of it, but not as FFF, which is what I wanted to use for storytelling order of responses.
        It’s a big subject, a lot of fun, but all for the bigger purpose of telling a good story that feels real.

        Trained soldiers are trained for specific responses in specific situations (over and over, to make it ingrained and automatic), which is why SAS are so special, as they need to find alternate paths of thought while not having time to assess, generally.

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      • Ouch. I’m glad you came out of the accident with relatively little damage. I totally agree re the time factor just not sure about the process that happened with your accident. I suspect you had the same time-slows-down reaction that I did. To me, it felt as if all parts of my brain – conscious and subconscious – were working together for the first time, ever. Btw, were you aware of pain while your hand was jammed in the door?

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      • Not aware of the pain, and no damage afterwards. The adrenaline/shock, I think, but no damage/injury at all. The car and caravan were written off. I was a professional driver (advanced driver training, including difficult terrain, accidents, skids, etc. Scary stuff), trained to respond to particular events in a particular way. If you’re going to die, protect your head and chest. I crossed my arms over the chest and held my scone tight against the headrest.

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      • Aaaaah! That explains a lot. I know this is not what’s meant by ‘muscle memory’ but it feels like it in a crisis. Maybe if you don’t see yourself/feel like a victim you don’t freeze?

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      • Yes! That’s one reason I insisted on the Offspring learning to drive a manual car. Trying to get that same muscle memory going with the fire fighting pumps coz I know we’ll both be terrified if/when we actually have to use them in a bushfire situation.

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      • Totally. ๐Ÿ™‚ Do you remember when you first learned to drive a car? Having to think each step – brake, clutch, handbrake off, check mirrors, indicate…blah blah. Now the car is an extension of our bodies. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • I was a farm kid, so driving was from about 8yo. But I did teach a few new drivers and would constantly say those words when they were needed – in fact, I think my dreams still have those moments, sometimes!

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  2. Intriguing topic, Cage, just one small thing – you snatch your hand away a millisecond /before/ you feel the pain [of say a burn] because one is an autonomic response – mediated by the nerves in the spinal cord/column? Sorry, it’s been many years since I studied this. The feeling of pain, however, occurs in the brain so there is a very slight delay between reaction and perception.
    This article calls it a reflex but the point is the timing:

    Click to access HandOnHotStove-092513-student.pdf

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    • That may have been what the general thought was a while ago, but how can a child do that? The difference is what makes that explanation non-feasible. The response time is exceedingly rapid because of the speed of the nerve response, but it’s not prior to the pain unless there is experience of it – and the brain sends a warning, something similar to a proximity alarm. It’s another case of what comes first … the knowing or not knowing the potential consequences of an action.

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      • Hmm…we teach children not to do things that harm them, that’s true, so a choice can be made /before/ the fact. But I’m not sure knowing is required by the nervous system. Haven’t you ever picked up something hot without knowing it? And dropped said something before the pain actually registers?

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      • We teach them, but they learn by doing, and so they don’t believe us until they experience the pain.
        I don’t think it’s about the pain registering, it’s the difference between the speed of an automatic response – the nerve endings can send messages faster than we can acknowledge them, and therefore tell the limb/appendage to make distance with haste – and then the conscious mind takes over to consider the actions as a danger to learn from.

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