4 Tips to Convey Surprise

“Suddenly, she heard a crash behind her!”

“She screamed in surprise, her eyes widened, her mouth was agape.”

UGH. These writing faux pas are terribly boring to write…and painful to read. So how do we fix this? I’ve discovered that angrily staring at my computer screen doesn’t help so I scourged the Internet for tips.

Here’s what I found:

  1. Surprise emotions are complicated. Duh, you know that, that’s why you’re here. Surprise is a universal emotion that is both BRIEF and TRANSITIONS into other emotions. Think of it this way: you’re little brother is hiding in your closet. You open the door and he leaps out – what are your initial reactions? Instantly, you would possibly scream, stumble backwards, but immediately afterward you might feel angry or irritated.
  2. Stray away from the clichés. Widened eyes. Gasp. Mouth agape. Sure, those can be great visuals, but can you push beyond that? Does your character have a unique tick or quirk? Vary your description to make surprise a bit more…surprising for your readers.
  3. Show don’t tell. I know, I know, this statement is paraded around the writing world like a holy commandment, BUT in this case, I do think it’s an incredibly helpful statement. Specifically, try to stay away from “Gary looked surprised,” “Bertha gasped in surprise,” “She gasped,” “he started.” Also, to add a little spice, try focusing on reactions away from the face. Surprise is a bodily response!
  4. When using a facial expression, get creative! If you do decide you would like to use a facial expression to convey surprise, think of other responses your character might use. According to an article I discovered (also referenced below) there are approximately 90 muscles in the face used to show emotion. So there are plenty of reactions to choose from!


If you still feel like you need some help, I’ve shared some links below!

Emotion Thesaurus: Shock/Surprise: this article is from the site “Writers Helping Writers.” They have multiple “emotion thesauruses” to help you out! They also suggest tailoring responses to your character.

Emotions: Showing Surprise: this article helps explain the difference between startled and surprised, as well as getting into the psychology of surprise. This article helped with tips 1 and 2 shared above.

Body Language: An Artistic Writing Tool: This was referenced in tip 4. She also mentions how to take care of overused dialogue tags and gives examples on how to convey surprise.

Happy writing!


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