The concept of self-revelation 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 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. The story which includes a self-revelation 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. True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.”— 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. This story structure has now spread across the globe and we are all familiar with it. In movies, self-revelations are often shot on a hill, or in some other high place like the top floor of a building. 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. 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.
SELF-REVELATION 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 self-revelation (or revelation) than more literary stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle. In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf.
SELF-REVELATION IN MYTH
In Greek mythology, a phoenixis 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 self-revelation 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.
SELF-REVELATION IN OTHER FORMS OF STORYTELLING
‘Self-revelation’ is John Truby’s term. Others call it an epiphany or the epiphanic moment. The ‘A-ha Moment’. However, these other terms often feel too strong. Not every character arc ends with a single, big moment suggested by ‘epiphany’. Most often when we learn something we don’t know the exact moment we learn it.
Compare Truby’s concept of self-revelation with another professional story guru Dan Harmon, who writes:
Harmon outlines the basic skeleton of any good story:
- A character is in a zone of comfort (BUT THEY DO NEED A WEAKNESS)
- 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 (BATTLE)
- Then return to their familiar situation (IN HOME-AWAY-HOME STORIES, WHICH NOT ALL OF THEM ARE)
- Having changed. (NEW EQUILIBRIUM)
Harmon is strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell. Truby is strongly influenced by Lajos Egri. In my opinion, Truby does a much better job of explicating what makes a meaningful story. Harmon skips the self-revelation part altogether, at least in this brief breakdown of story points. However, Harmon does describe a lot of Hollywood blockbusters pretty well, which do nothing particularly meaningful except entertain.
Some tips for writing self-revelations:
- There can be no self-revelation unless there is a moral weakness established at the beginning. So set that up first. In fact, when crafting a story, start with the self-revelation and work back from there. Character arc = story, after all.
- The quality of your story = the quality of the self-revelation.
- A good self-revelation has two steps, the same as need: psychological and moral. Don’t forget to set up both of these needs.
- Psychological Self-Revelation: The hero strips away the facade they have lived behind and sees themselves honestly for the first time. This is the most courageous act the hero performs in the entire story. Don’t have the hero come right out and say what they’ve learnt. Suggests the hero’s insight by the actions they take leading up to the self-revelation.
- By the way, a self-revelation can be negative.
- Moral Self-Revelation: If you’ve given your hero a moral need, their self-revelation should be moral as well. They have an insight about the proper way to act towards others. The hero proves they’ve changed by taking new moral action.
- The best stories give both the main character AND the opponent their own self-revelations. They should each learn something from the other. This is the Shadow In The Hero technique. John Truby calls it the ‘Double Reversal Technique’. Most opponents in storytelling learn nothing, but the love story is most likely to feature an opponent with a self-revelation. (You could argue ‘opponents’ in love stories aren’t like opponents in, say, horror — the opponent in a love story is the love interest.) Pride and Prejudice is the standout example of this.
- The revelations of the main character and the opponent should be connected.
- The self-revelation comes out of the battle scene. The main character realises that they have been wrong about himself and wrong towards others and realises how to treat others better.
- Right after this self-revelation, the main character makes a moral decision. They usually make a conscious decision to do better. Don’t forget to show this bit to the audience, or at least hint at it.
- Sometimes there is no self-revelation on the part of the ‘main character’ and that is the entire point. Larry McMurtry’s film/book Hud features a main character (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). 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 self-revelation 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 does not change, others around them must. (Outside comedy series, see below.) Otherwise the story will not satisfy.
- When there is no Self-revelation in the true sense — when the main character learns nothing about themselves — there is always what I call a ‘proxy’ revelation. In other words, a plot reveal. This will surprise the reader as much as it surprises the character. Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” is a good example of this kind of proxy Self-revelation. In a twist ending you’ll always have a big reveal (and possibly a reversal), 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 Self-revelation phase in a character driven story, the storyteller needs at least a proxy for that, otherwise the story will seem unfinished to the reader.
- There’s a second kind of proxy Self-revelation in a character driven story: The character learns something about themselves which isn’t really true about them. The reader is given enough information to know this — the main character, or the narrator, is not to be fully trusted. Or, 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. Since the character is wrong about himself, it is the very thing that plunges him into the Battle, not what helps him out come of it. We know these characters will never change. That’s the whole point.
- During the self-revelation phase, it’s important to show it, not tell it (to make use of Aristotelian terms). In film, that means don’t put any self-revelation into the dialogue. Same goes for writing novels — don’t put it in dialogue and also don’t put it in narrative summary. The self-revelation has to be shown in an action scene. That action scene will probably include dialogue, but the dialogue can’t be on the nose about that.
- We can start off sure, go through an experience and rather than have a revelation, we end up less sure than before. This still counts as a Self-revelation.
SELF-REVELATION AS PART OF THE MORAL LINE
(I’ve chosen an image of a road to illustrate a story, which works as a symbol for linear stories with (masculine) mythic structure. Bear in mind there are many different plot shapes.) The massive moral decision usually comes just after the main character has their moral self-revelation, which shows them which choice to make.
No matter how complex the actions of the characters over the course of the story, the final moral decision brings everything down to a choice between two. And it is final. John Truby writes in Anatomy of Story that ‘the moral decision is the narrow part of the funnel for your theme.’
- 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.
- Despite not changing much, Don Draper does face a number of moral decisions, 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.
- In Big Love, Barb, as first wife, has already faced a number of massive moral decisions at the beginning of the story. Back story eventually tells 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 feeling completely 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.
In all of these highly regarded TV shows, the opponents have their own self-revelations, and all of these revelations are connected to each other, counterbalancing fables, asking the audience to consider the best way to lead a good life.
SELF-REVELATION IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
If you’re writing a contemporary children’s story, the self-revelation 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.
When examining a story for diversity, avoid a simple tally of gender and ethnicity. Look instead at who gets to have all the self-revelations. That tells you who the ‘humans’ are considered to be.
SELF-REVELATION IN COMEDY
Or, absence thereof…
In comedy — specifically ongoing comedy series, either sit-coms or novel series — there will be no self-revelation 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 self-revelation, they’ll have forgotten it by the beginning of the next story.
What does happen, though, especially in stories for children: The audience has a minor self-revelation. Spongebob Squarepants stars characters who never learn, yet each episode is heavily didactic. For the viewer. (Didacticism is accepted in comedy.)
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.)
We love comedic characters because they never learn. Failing to learn from mistakes is a compulsory psychological weakness for a comedic character in an ongoing series.
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.