A Writerly Epiphany


Today is the official end of the Christmas season, characterized appropriately enough by the arrival of the Magi—the three wise men or kings—to visit the infant Christ. It is Twelfth Night, the last night of feasting and celebration before the cold and dark new year really gets going, and also Epiphany, a moment of revelation, signifying for Christians the belief at the heart of the New Testament that God’s relationship with Israel has been expanded to all people (whose representatives those 3 Kings are). Epiphany is a moment of realization, a sudden, life-changing flash of insight.

There are a couple of ways of thinking about this idea as writers. The one I’ll handle today is for our characters. Most stories hinge on a character’s journey and growth which often depend on a late narrative moment of discovery. In classic detective fiction the key realization might be when the hero realizes the truth of the mystery, but often the epiphany is subtler, more personal. It often comes as self-awareness, the recognition of what an astute reader may have already picked up about who the character is or has been, and what needs to change. Joyce’s Dubliners stories (a masterful little collection that showcases epiphany beautifully) each hinge on one of these flashes of insight, though the collective effect is less about how the characters can move forward and more about how terribly stuck they are.

Most of us, because of the genre we’re working in, will want to give our characters epiphanies that allow more constructive solutions to their problems, but that doesn’t mean that the realization needs to be of the whodunit variety. The best for our purposes probably fuse insight into character with plot advancement, and I’m sure we can all come up with familiar examples, particularly from movies where this device plays well: Luke’s turning off the targeting computer in his Death Star approach, is a fairly crude but effective example, since it taps into the movie’s preoccupation with putting aside self reliance and giving yourself over to the Force. (The idea finally doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it works within the fiction of the film).

In LOTR, think of the moment Bilbo asks to see the ring again in Rivendell, but seeing it makes him turn on Frodo. What follows is a crucial realization that the ring has started to do so much damage to him that he is better off without it. Though he gave it to Frodo at Bag End, it’s not till now that he truly releases it, and the epiphany is, again, one which contains insight into who he is while also furthering the plot. It is no coincidence that this is also effectively Bilbo’s last real presence in the story. His journey is done.

If you think of your story in terms of a three act structure, the protagonist’s epiphany is often at the end of the long second act. It may come at the story’s emotional low point, when all seems lost, but the realization provides the impetus for the final show down and (typically) victory. It’s often the point where goals (conscious) and needs (unconscious) coincide. It’s Dorothy realizing that there’s no place like home (another dubious—and isolationist—sentiment!), or the transformative moment when Hamlet, realizing he has received his death wound, his finally able to complete the revenge which has thus far eluded him. In my own Act of Will, it’s the moment when the title character realizes that for all his self-serving actions to date, he finally can’t leave his friends to face defeat alone.

Working epiphany into your narrative forces not just self-awareness on your characters but—perhaps more importantly—a level of ignorance about themselves before hand. The very fact of the discovery means there was something about them that they didn’t know earlier, something which must be precipitated by an event. In short, it’s a wonderful device for blending plot and character and it requirs the author to plan ahead, or at least to edit so that the journey towards self-knowledge makes sense.

There are other ways to think about epiphanies for writers themselves, but I’ll save that for another post. Happy Twelfth Night, all!


10 comments to A Writerly Epiphany

  • TwilightHero

    Excellent post. I always thought of that scene in LOTR as foreshadowing for just how terrible the Ring is and the depths to which it can drag its bearer (this being before you meet Gollum). Always good to get new perspective on familiar scenes 🙂

    Incidentally, my WIP matches your late narrative discovery assessment perfectly. I’ve taken to thinking of my story in six parts, and though there are several pivotal ‘game-changer’ points, the main characters’ epiphanies all take place during the fifth and early sixth parts. Interesting.

  • Oooh, I love that moment when the penny drops. Thank you for giving it a name. My WIP has two epiphany moments – one when the main character discovers a family member murdered, and the particular cause of death points to one person they thought was dealt with. The second is my main character’s personal epiphany, when she realizes she’s fallen in love (which she believes is a bad thing). Both are late in the narrative. 😀

  • Great post! I’ve been thinking about this in terms of my own stuff. And sometimes in terms of my own epiphanies, not that I’ve had many. I particularly liked the one in Act of Will becuse we do see it coming far before he does. Will’s insistance that he is completely self-serving is undercut by his need to consistnetly explain it to the reader and himself. If you have to say it that much, it isn’t true. And, as an aside, Hamlet didn’t get revenge, he got justice–or maybe the epiphany that he couldn’t have justice–his only choice was revenge or nothing at all. Alas, how sad.

    I think one of my favorite epiphanies is the reveal in 12th Night. The almost hysterical responses of Viola as she gets blamed for more and more things she didn’t do. And the reunion with her brother always makes me a little teary. That epiphany that everyone shares about her being a girl, and about how much they do love her. I like that the “I’m in love with X person” ephiphany is secondary to the “my brother is alive” reveal. Almost an afterthought. And the lack-of-epiphany in Iago: I think he doesn’t even fully understand why he does what he does.

  • TwilightHero,
    Thanks. Yes, you are right about the Bilbo scene. It does both, I think. It makes sense that your hero’s epiphanies come so late. If the character comes to those key discoveries too early, the story loses steam. There can, of course, be lesser epiphanies along the way.

    Those sound great. presumably the realization that the character has fallen in love has all kinds of mini self-discoveries attached. Love has a way of doing that.

    thanks. You are right about Will and his constant proclamations of self-interest. I think it’s a good thing for readers to spot something about their characters before the character him/herself realizes it because it’s common in life: people “get” stuff about us which we manage not to see about ourselves. It’s also a good thing to empower readers.

  • I’m sitting here trying to figure out when the epiphanies occurred for various characters in my various books, and I find, as you suggest, that it’s quite easy to pinpoint in some stories, and more difficult in others. I suppose I tend to prefer the subtle epiphanies, the ones that aren’t necessarily shout-out-loud “AHA” moments, but rather more along the lines of “Oooohhhhh….” if that makes any sense at all. Nice post, A.J. You’re got me thinking, as you so often do.

  • David, agreed. The big ones work well in movies but can feel obvious in books. As a rule, subtle is probably better 🙂

  • jiah

    Wow, interesting post! The way you have elaborated ‘epiphany’ reminds me of Aristotle’s concepts of ‘anagnorisis’ or recognition and ‘peripeteia’ (reversal of situation) in Greek tragedy! I think epiphanies can lead to very dramatic turns of events. Maybe the subtle epiphanies lead to a conceptual shift in the narrative (it’s not simply that the ring is evil; the ring can bring you face to face with the evil within yourself) while the more obvious ones lead directly to a twist in the plot. Just some random thoughts…

    On the subject of movies, I often feel that Indian popular films often have epiphanic moments half-way through the narrative. This might probably be because most Indian-language films, unlike Hollywood films, have an interval halfway through the film. I’m not sure about how the interval originated, but it seems the narrative has come to be structured around this interval. So there is the story *before* the interval, then there is the moment of recognition immediately preceding the interval which marks a turning point in the narrative, and then there is the rest of the story after the interval! I often wonder idly about structuring a novel in this way. Again, just sharing random thoughts! 🙂

  • Jiah,
    yes, the Aristotle references are right on the money. I like your idea about Indian movies (about which I know very little), and am sure you’re right: if a mid point intermission is standard, that will affect the story structure and teh moments of recognition/epiphany.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Actually, the God of Moses and Abraham reveals he’s everybody’s God in the Book of Jonah. Go read for yourself, and note how Jonah gets ticked off when a bush dies on him. He’s not just the God of Israel, but the God of Assyria as well. 🙂

  • I hadn’t considered the exact nature of this kind of epiphany before, but understood the need for realization in the character’s development. In Shadowslayer, my MC had an epiphany when he realized that vengeance wasn’t enough to survive on and accepted the strength found in the love of those around him.

    Already thinking about how this applies to writers. Can’t wait for your next post.