Anagnorisis is a moment in a work of fiction when a character makes a critical discovery. Even for plotters rather than pantsers, this is the part of writing that often emerges in the process of storycrafting. Some people call it an epiphany, especially when talking about short stories. Others call it a ‘leap’, as in a ‘leap of understanding’. Teachers talk of ‘aha moments’, scientists of the Eureka effect. Oftentimes in story it is far more gentle than that, or happens fleetingly.
If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something.Ethan Canin
What is the purpose of writing? For me personally, it is really to explain the mystery of life, and the mystery of life includes, of course, the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.Nadine Gordimer
The concept of anagnorisis links to a long human history of religious morality. Not surprisingly, storytelling is influenced by this way of viewing humanity, even in a non-religious modern story. The more common term ‘revelation’ is similar to the 2016 word ‘woke‘ — while it has its origin in religion, the concept is far wider than that.
THE RELIGIOUS ORIGIN OF REVELATION
Religious thought from around the world has shaped our storytelling. A story which includes a anagnorisis is therefore a universal story.
Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment.Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)
Americans and Christians in particular will be familiar with The Redemption Story, which has its own specific story structure.
In movies, anagnorises are often shot on a hill, or in some other high place like the top floor of a building. The film Contact features Jodi Foster sitting in an elevated spot in the desert at the end of the movie — she now has a much better view on the world and its place in the universe.
In Charlotte’s Web, for instance, the part where Wilbur gains his understanding of death occurs with the part where Fern is at the top of the Ferris wheel.
For more on this, see The Symbolism of Altitude. It all comes from Moses On The Mount, of course. Or maybe the Bible stories are based on much, much older storytelling conventions. Maybe there’s something about being up high which allows humans to see things differently. (Cats get it.)
True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)
THE EMOTION OF AWE
The emotion most associated with the experience of anagnorisis is ‘awe’, which psychologists have been working to understand. According to Andy Tix, the transformative kind of ‘awe’ looks like this:
- It overwhelms individuals with something that transcends their current knowledge or understanding of the world.
- It immerses them in the process of trying to accommodate what previously was known with what currently is being experienced.
- It involves feelings of smallness or humility in the presence of something greater.
- It results in a profound change in thinking or behaviour, even in self-definition.
- The subject retains a vivid long-term memory of the event.
- Awe occurs very infrequently, maybe even only a few times in life.
ANAGNORISIS EXISTS ON A CONTINUUM
Just as there are strong desires and low-level desires, sometimes a character has a Eureka Moment (that’s what TV Tropes calls it), and at other times they realise something, sort of, in a nebulous kind of way.
Genre stories tend to have a stronger anagnorisis than more literary/lyrical stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle. In some types of lyrical short stories the character almost has a revelation, then ignores it. Examples are plentiful in Katherine Mansfield’s modernist stories, but also in modern ones, such as Helen Simpson’s “In-flight Entertainment“.
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf. Annie Proulx likes those ones.
ANAGNORISIS IN MYTH
In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again.
Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.Wikipedia
At the beginning of 2018, Uma Thurman opened up to the media about her experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino. Following in from this, Jessica Chastain said the following in a series of tweets: I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.Jessica Chastain
Chastain’s phrase ‘phoenix moment‘ is a useful one. I consider this a subcategory of the anagnorisis phase in storytelling, and one which is highly problematic when used time and again with certain groups of people. It’s not the phoenix moment itself which is the problem, but the sequence of abuse scenes leading up to that moment.
In the wake of the Australian bushfires of 2019-20, the media talked also about ‘Chernobyl moment‘, as in, will this be Australia’s Chernobyl moment when it comes to understanding the full impact of climate change?
ANAGNORISIS IN OTHER FORMS OF STORYTELLING
In the world of short stories, this moment is often called an epiphany, a Joycean epiphany, or the epiphanic moment. The ‘A-ha Moment’. However, these other terms often feel too strong for many types of story. As mentioned above, the Literary Impressionists such as Katherine Mansfield distinguished their form of storytelling by rejecting the epiphany, instead writing under the idea that people don’t really change all that much. Even when opportunities for change arise, characters often fail to heed the warnings, and keep plodding on as before — to their own detriment.
- Walter White has the opportunity to do the right thing and hand himself in when Hank discovers who he really is. But he decides to run instead. He does have a slow, hard-earned self-revelation, though. He acknowledges that he hasn’t been doing it all for his family, but for himself.
- Despite not changing much, Don Draper in Mad Men does face a number of moral dilemmas, mostly centred upon people finding out who he really is. He decides to continue living as Don Draper, but has regular lapses back into his old, less privileged life. When Don has his Joycean epiphany, that’s when the storytellers decided to leave him. (I imagine he becomes insufferable after that.)
- In Big Love, Barb, as first wife, has already faced a number of massive moral decisions at the beginning of the story. Backstory eventually reveals to the audience that Barb had the opportunity to leave Bill when he took on his second wife. Barb is constantly tested, especially when her natal family and her church reject her, leaving her isolated from the rest of the world. The most noticeable character arc in Big Love is the character of Margine, who is so young that she is the main character in a coming-of-age story. At the beginning she is a teenager (revealed in a later season to be younger than initially depicted), but in the end Margine is a self-actualised woman, and makes the best of her polygamist situation to live what is actually a pretty feminist life.
But a complete narrative does seem to require something in the anagnorisis category. Even when the characters learn absolutely nothing, perhaps because they are irredeemably stupid or terrible, the audience needs to get something out of the story.
Dan Harmon outlines the basic skeleton of any good story:
- A character is in a zone of comfort (BUT THEY DO NEED A SHORTCOMING)
- But they want something (DESIRE)
- They enter an unfamiliar situation (OPPONENT)
- Adapt to it (PLAN)
- Get what they wanted (OR NOT, IN A TRAGEDY)
- Pay a heavy price for it (BIG STRUGGLE)
- Then return to their familiar situation (IN HOME-AWAY-HOME STORIES, WHICH NOT ALL OF THEM ARE)
- Having changed. (NEW SITUATION)
TYPES OF ANAGNORISIS
CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THE PLOT
This is called a plot reveal. This will surprise the reader if not the character. Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” is a good example of this kind of proxy-Anagnorisis. In a twist ending you’ll always have a big reveal (possibly with delayed decoding), and in this case you probably haven’t got a character driven story but a plot driven one. I’m arguing that where there is no Anagnorisis phase in a character driven story, the storyteller needs at least a proxy for that, otherwise the story will seem unfinished to the reader.
CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING TRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES
This is the best outcome for a character and makes any pain endured across the story worth the effort.
CHARACTER ALMOST LEARNS SOMETHING ABOUT THEMSELVES
These stories are vexing tragedies for the audience, who experiences an “If only!” reaction. The Wrestler is a great example of this. Randy the Ram comes so close to learning something about himself. If only he’d seen what the audience had seen about him he could’ve improved his life.
CHARACTER LEARNS SOMETHING UNTRUE ABOUT THEMSELVES
This isn’t usual, but sometimes a character learns something about themselves which isn’t really true about them. The reader is given enough information to know the veridical truth of their character. The unreliable narrator is useful for this. Stories like this tend to have in common themes about how we can never really know ourselves.
Alternatively, the narrator knowingly gives us enough information to make up our own minds. A good example of this technique is Annie Proulx’s short story “Heart Songs“. Importantly, this faux-self understanding comes before the Battle scene, not after it, where it’s usually placed. Since the character is wrong about himself, it is the very thing that plunges him into the Big Struggle, not what helps him out come of it. We know these characters will never change. That’s the whole point.
Starting out sure about something then becoming less sure is another riff on Anagnorisis.
Sometimes it’s not the main character who learns something about themselves
It’s not always easy to pick which character is the ‘main one’. Is is the character we see the most of? The focalising character? Or is it the one who undergoes the anagnorisis?
Larry McMurtry’s film/book Hud features a main character (called Hud) who refuses to change. But those all around him do change and he is left all alone, which is the point. Don Draper didn’t change until right at the end, in a tacked on, cheesy kind of hippie way (in my opinion). But all the characters around him changed, mostly Peggy.
As Caroline Framke points out at Vox, “Don Draper spent seven seasons refusing to change at all. But others changed all around him. Joan realised that she could work sexism to her advantage for a longterm better future for herself and her son, then pull away entirely, to run her own business. Peggy’s story was a coming-of-age story, from country-girl to Manhattan cosmopolitan who didn’t feel she had to pretend to be someone she was not. Peter had the Anagnorisis that family comes first. Roger reflected on his own life and realised how he’d gone wrong. Don Draper came up with a good idea for a Coca-Cola advertisement.”
If your main character (e.g. Don Draper) does not change, others around them must. (Exception for comedy series, see below.)
ANAGNORISIS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
If you’re writing a contemporary children’s story, the Anagnorisis better be experienced by the child.
This hasn’t always been the case — The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature was full of adult characters who went through the character arc helped along by the innocence and inherent goodness of the uncorrupted child.
Adults in children’s books are usually stuck with their characters and incapable of alteration or growth. If they are really unpleasant, the only thing that can rescue them is the natural goodness of the child.Alison Lurie: The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
Lurie offers Mrs Burnett in Little Lord Fauntleroy as the classic example of an adult whose only hope is the goodness of a child.
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert go through late-life emotional maturity with the addition of Anne Shirley to the household. At least in Anne of Green Gables, Anne has her own emotional journey alongside the adults.
But even today, you’ll still find stories in which the child character exists as a tool in the emotional awakening of an adjacent adult. A particularly egregious example is a DreamWorks movie, which I talk about in my post on how girls are too often asked to play this role. Girls are assumed to be more emotionally mature than boys, giving rise to ‘The Female Maturity Formula’ of modern storytelling. In that film, Dakota Fanning’s character behaves like a miniature adult mother. The adult men in her company mend their ways, with her leading by example.
When examining a story for diversity, avoid a simple tally of gender and ethnicity. Look instead at who gets to have all the Anagnorises. That tells you who the ’rounded humans’ are considered to be.
ANAGNORISIS IN COMEDY
Or, absence thereof…
We love comedic characters precisely because they never learn. Failing to learn from mistakes is a compulsory psychological shortcoming for a comedic character in an ongoing series.
In comedy — specifically ongoing comedy series, either sit-coms or novel series — there will be no Anagnorisis on the part of the main character. Comical characters are highly flawed, and if they were to learn from their experiences they would get boring and staid. George Costanza never learns from his errors. Nor does Greg Heffley. Even when a comedic character does have a minor Anagnorisis, they’ll have forgotten it by the beginning of the next story, arriving in statu nascendi.
If it’s a stand-alone comedy story, however, the main character is quite likely to learn a big lesson. Groundhog Day is one example.
What does happen, though, especially in comedies for children: The audience has a minor Anagnorisis. Spongebob Squarepants features characters who never learn, yet each episode is mock-didactic. For the viewer. (Didacticism is coded as mock-didacticism in comedy.) Episodes end like a Charles Perrault fairytale, with a summary of a moral lesson.
Likewise, in Courage The Cowardly Dog, the viewer is reminded of the exact same lesson over and over — be nice to others because they can help you out. (Listen to Courage because he’s always the first to detect baddies.)