“It Suddenly Dawned on Her”: Improving Your Character Epiphanies
“And then, it suddenly dawned on her.”
That phrase is the ultimate cliche for a character epiphany. The term epiphany was originally a religious term referring to the physical appearance of a deity. In fiction, it’s the point at which truth appears before a character; the character learns or understands something.
Elaine Marie Alphin, author of Creating Characters Kids Will Love (Writer’s Digest) and several novels, says, “The epiphany is the moment of self-realization; it’s when the character’s change and growth hits him or her, even if the character doesn’t fully understand it.”
As an example, Alphin points to the epiphany in her novel, The Perfect Shot (Carolrhoda). She says, “Brian is a high school basketball player who has always believed what you do on the court, you do in life. However, as he approaches a major game he knows he’s hiding important information in a murder investigation, information that could save an innocent man’s life. He’s been threatened to stay silent, but as he goes into the game, he doesn’t feel good about himself and his play on the court reflects his confusion.” In this excerpt from the half-time scene, Amanda is his former-girlfriend, one of the murder victims:
“But I don’t buy it–because when we play like a team, when we’re there for each other, we’re unstoppable.”
As I say the words, I know what I’m going to do. I’m not living scared of that flat, dead voice forever, thinking I don’t stand a chance against him [the murderer]. I’m going to be there for Amanda, not keep her from getting justice by keeping my mouth shut. . . I’m going to talk to [that reporter]. . . Knowing the decision is made, and it’s right, I know I’m going to lead the Warriors back onto that court looking like a different team.”
Brian’s realization that he can’t live in fear is the epiphany that puts him on the path of catching the murderer.
Epiphany v. Climax
An epiphany sounds like the high point of a story. Does that mean it’s the climax of the story? Janni Simner, author of the middle grade novel, Secret of the Three Treasures, says, “I tend to think of the epiphany as part of the character’s internal arc, while I think of the climax as external. Even though, of course, internal and external arcs really tend to be intertwined in various ways.”
The epiphany demonstrates the growth that a character makes as a result of the story’s actions. In structuring a story, this means that the epiphany is near the climax, since the internal and external arcs usually coincide. In practice, though, there are variations.
Simner points to Madeline L’engle’s classic story, A Wrinkle in Time, nosim?tag=darpatsrevnot-20 as an example of the epiphany and climax happening together. “On Camazotz, Meg Murray realizes that ‘like and equal are not the same thing,’ and that it’s OK for people to be different from one another. This is the point where she believes it; and that belief and acceptance allows her to also love and accept–and rescue–her brother Charles Wallace.”
Sometimes, though, the epiphany comes before the climax and causes the climax. In Mary E. Pearson’s novel, A Room on Lorelei Street (Holt), which was a 2005 Golden Kite winner, Zoe has been trying to separate herself from her family and their troubles. But in a tight spot for money Zoe has spent time at a local motel with a generous customer. Carlos sees her getting out of the customer’s car.
He smiles. A quick, jerky smile she hasn’t seen before. . .
“You don’t need to explain.”
She doesn’t. She is floating, hovering somewhere outside herself. A hollow distance that can’t be measured. Far, but as close as skin to skin. She looks at his eyes.
She reads them.
She recognizes them.
They are her eyes. Her own eyes.
Her own eyes looking at Mama.
Pearson says, “This is a turning point for Zoe, a realization that she is following in the very footsteps she had sought to avoid. From here a climax follows which spawns further epiphanies and Zoe is pushed to a final decision.”
By contrast, Simner’s book, Secret of the Three Treasures, places the epiphany after the climax. In a climactic scene, Tierney West has just taken her place in the world as a professional adventurer, with one adventure behind her and many more ahead. This allows her to accept her mother as a non-adventurer. Tierney demonstrates her acceptance by inviting her mother to have dessert with her and a fellow adventurer–a small, but important gesture. Looking at her Mom, Tierney thinks:
“I wondered whether one day she would understand better about adventuring, if I was patient like Jane Grey said. Adventurers aren’t good at being patient–but if T.J. Redstone could wait six months to translate a single coded missive, if Dad could wait five years for the first T.J. book to sell–maybe I could wait, too.”
Simner says, “I think that’s the point–very close to the end–where Tiernay decides that she can make the effort to live in a world filled with non-adventurers, at least when those non-adventurers are people who are important in other ways.”
In relation to the climax, then, epiphanies can come before (to trigger the climax), during (to spin it in a different direction, or move it along) or after (as a grace note in the denouement).
Variations on Ephiphanies
Pearson mentioned that Zoe’s epiphany is followed by further epiphanies. Often, there are multiple epiphanies in a story, as the character grows and grows. How many epiphanies is enough? There’s no right answer, because stories vary widely. As many as your story needs, is the best answer possible. Evaluate the character’s arc to see when and where it’s appropriate for characters to experience an epiphany. In fact, Pearson points out that not every main character has an epiphany. “There are exceptions, especially where the main character is an unreliable narrator, and in that case, the epiphany may still occur, except that it is the reader who experiences it and not the protagonist of the story.”
Is the main character the only who has an epiphany?
In Alphin’s story, The Perfect Shot, the secondary character Julius realizes the importance of the team effort at the same time that Brian does. Alphin explains that, “Julius, Brian’s best friend is the high scoring star player and also one of the few black kids in their small, white Indiana town. When he’s pulled over by city policemen, he calls on Brian for help. The police encounter turns Julius into a ball hog. Worse–he trusts no one on the team.”
“Trust me,” I (Brian) tell them. “I’ll be there for you the rest of the game. I trust you guys to be there for me.”
They crowd around me, hands stretching into the center of our circle, gripping hard. Julius’s hand comes down last, crowning the clasp.
Julius hold onto us for a long moment. Then he whispers, “Team.”
Epiphanies Gone Wrong
Writing an epiphany can be tricky because this is a crucial moment in most stories. It needs to be right. Here are some common mistakes and their cures:
- “It Suddenly Dawned on Her.” Telling the epiphany rarely works because it doesn’t allow the reader to experience the epiphany. To cure this type epiphany, use action and imagery to indirectly reveal truth.
In my fantasy novel, The Wayfinder, Win has traveled through the depths of grief over losing his sister, Zanna, and emerged stronger. But he has to deal with his grief one more time, as Paz Naamit, the giant eagle flies him back over the Rift (a deep canyon) to his home.
“Win rose and helped Lady Kala climbed onto the broad back of the eagle. When they were both seated, the eagle gave a mighty leap. Her wings spread majestically, and they sailed out over the Rift. Far below, the shiny ribbon of water was still in deep shadow. . .Win’s right hand crept into his pocket and pulled out the white rock from Zanna’a cairn. He had traveled through the depths of the Rift and fought his way to the top and across to the black sand of the Well of Life, then back across the prairie to the Rift again–and Zanna was in none of those places.
Instead she was with him and in him. . . For as long as there were memories or words, Zanna would live. For a moment he hefted the bone white stone in his hand, then reared back and threw it into the Rift, back into the depths from which it had come. It fell soundlessly, and he didn’t know when or where it landed. Paz Naamit caught an updraft and spiraled higher and higher. Win laid a hand on Lady Kala’s warm back and turned toward G’il Rim and home.”
The symbolic white rock and the giant eagle spiraling higher demonstrate that Win has gone to a higher plane of understanding.
- “Let Me Tell You the Truth.” The epiphany often demonstrates some eternal truth, but it’s a mistake to just state that truth as fact. Instead, allow the reader to follow the process of learning or understanding the truth. We tell stories because the actions of the story illustrate the principles.
In the Wizard of Oz, Glinda asks Dorothy, “What have you learned?”
Dorothy doesn’t just state, “There’s no place like home.” Because of everything that has gone before, she feels it with all her heart, And so does the reader.
- “Suddenly Golden Light Washed Over Her.” Overblown language can ruin an epiphany. Instead, stick to solid actions, strong verbs, concrete images.
In Alphin’s novel, The Perfect Shot, the team is finally working together. Brian calls to a teammate to give up the ball to “Shooter” who is in a good position to take a last shot, the shot that will determine if they win the game. What’s implied here is winning not just this particular basketball game, but the teamwork needed to succeed in life.
“But Julius gets the message. In the first half he would have forced the shot, but now he flicks the ball behind his head, a blind pass to Shooter. Shooter takes the pass and, in a single motion, shoots up into the air from just behind the three-point line, his arm muscles flexing as he launches the ball into space. The buzzer sounds as all eyes watch the ball, now falling back toward earth, heading for the target: a small round hole hovering in the space between it and the floor.
Swish–the perfect shot!”
- “I Haven’t Mentioned This Before, But. . . .” An epiphany has to be a natural outgrowth of the story and not tacked on. Instead build in a cause-effect relationship; the stories events cause the epiphany.
In Katherine Paterson’s classic story, Bridge to Terabithia, the epiphany comes a few pages before the ending. Here, Jess is reflecting on his friendship with Leslie, who has drowned.
He thought about it all day, how before Leslie came, he had been a nothing–a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big–trying to hide with a mob of foolish little fears running riot inside his gut.
It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. He had thought that was it. Wasn’t king the best you could be? Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. . . . .Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn’t there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
This epiphany sets up the last scene where Jess takes his little sister, May Belle, and introduces her as the new queen of Terabithia. Everything, including the epiphany, has led up to this poignant moment.
- “I’m So Wonderful to Understand This.” When first-person narrator has an epiphany, it could become a moment of self-congratulation that sends the reader running. Instead, let the readers have the epiphany. Or, let the narrator report on someone else’s epiphany.
Alphin handles this well in The Perfect Shot, where the first person narrator has both internal dialogue and demonstrates the epiphany with actions.
- “I Had an Epiphany. Didn’t I?” Sometimes the epiphany is too obscure and not obvious enough to the reader. Or the expression of the epiphany is, well, boring. Instead, the epiphany should be carefully worded so the reader interprets it as an important moment. It’s a balance between the fireworks of overblown language and the quicksand of an understated epiphany.
Epiphany Tips for your Novel
Writers need to learn to handle epiphanies well. Novels are about something happening and in the midst of this action, a character changes and grows. Simner, Alphin and Pearson give final tips about writing epiphanies.
Simner rarely knows the character epiphany at the planning stage of a novel. “I write the story and I listen to my characters, and usually at the crucial moment, my main character will tell me what he or she has realized. I find I can plan out other things, but epiphanies–for me–have to arise out of the writing process itself.”
Pearson echoes Simner’s approach: “Let the epiphany grow naturally out of the story. In A Room on Lorelei Street, I realized about the same time as the main character what she needed to do in order to have her deepest need met. I didn’t write ‘toward’ that epiphany, it just finally all added up to the character and consequently, to me, so it was there for me to write down.”
Knowing the epiphany up front can be tricky. Alphin says, “Probably the biggest pitfall is that the writer knows what the epiphany is and what it means, but the main character is just discovering it, so the writer tends to explain it beyond what the main character understands yet. Because the epiphany is so obvious to the writer, the element of stunned realization that the main character experiences tends to be underplayed and instead the reader is told about the significance of the epiphany of experiencing it along with the character.”
Epiphanies are an emotional high point or the emotional climax of a character’s emotional arc. As such, writers who consciously tweak the epiphany for maximum impact will create stories that tug at the hearts of readers.
This article originally appeared in Children’s Writer Guide to 2008, Writer’s Institute.