Revelation - Oh-ho!
Epiphany - Ah-ha!
© 2010 Anna Furtado
Fiction yields a transformed character. Let's face it. If the protagonist hasn't changed by the end of the story, it will lack the excitement necessary to keep the reader interested. Without that interest, the reader may want to put the book down and walk away, never to take it up again.|
One way this transformation is facilitated is with a series of revelations, and by the end of the tale, the main character may have an important epiphany that results in the final transforming event. Additionally, there may be other small epiphanies to light the way. All of these serve to move the story along, pulling the protagonist down specific paths toward the final scene.
Epiphany vs Revelation
The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines epiphany as "an illuminating discovery" or "an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking."
An epiphany is a critical turning point in a story. A moment when a main character realizes something not understood previously (Ah-ha!). Everything changes. Understanding deepens. Events change. The character is changed, seeing things in a new light. From Merriam-Webster's definition, we see that these epiphanies are often triggered as a result of everyday, ordinary events.
For instance, a character is making small talk with the protagonist and mentions that he went to the library the other day. There, he was amazed at the old musty books he found on an obscure topic. The protagonist pauses. Her mind wanders to other musty smells she's encountered in her own experience and, bingo, she realizes that the victim in the mystery must have been wet before he was found in a field far from a body of water, because the smell she couldn't identify previously was that of wet wool in the process of drying out. Epiphany! Or another protagonist looks at a coffee cup sitting on a diner table waiting to be bussed. The lipstick stain on the mug triggers a memory. It reminds her of the story's villain. And that makes her realize that her girlfriend has not been unfaithful at all. She realizes she's been drawing the wrong conclusions. She's put the blame on the wrong person. A wall crumbles. Light floods in. She begins a journey back to reestablishing a relationship that had fallen apart, all because of a dirty cup and an epiphany.
Now, let's examine the definition of a revelation. According to both Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com, revelation is all about communication or disclosure. Something not realized before is now revealed (Oh-ho!). Something not known is communicated by another character or by a circumstance. This, too, opens a path for the main character to forge ahead in a particular direction. It moves the plot along.
When the conversation between the protagonist and another character takes this route regarding the victim, it has nothing to do with the epiphany. This is a revelation-information directly related to the issue at hand. If the minor character says, "I was looking for ID on the victim. The strange thing is, he had damp sand in his pockets." That's a direct revelation to the detective that this guy's been in the water. He may or may not smell musty. But there isn't too much doubt he's been at the beach, and the field he's now in is a bit of a red herring. This information comes directly to the protagonist. There is no epiphany, but there is a revelation. Now the detective begins to think about beaches in the area and how the victim got from there to here.
Epiphany and Revelation Are Vastly Different
So at first blush, "epiphany" and "revelation" may seem like very similar things; however, they are vastly different. To expand just a little: an epiphany is a personal thing that happens within the character. It is an interior insight that only the character can realize. No one can help her, except by some tangential means, say, by an unrelated remark or an object, a sound, an odor that causes all the tumblers to fall into place with soft clicking sounds and the door of understanding to swing open. The trigger, related by some association only the character can make, results in the knowledge or insight.
In my third Briarcrest Chronicles novel, The Heart's Longing, Trinn, the protagonist, has a flash of insight when she goes back to the late fifteenth century Briarcrest and in a moment, while talking to someone from that time, she has a realization about what part the other main character back in contemporary time plays in the whole Briarcrest history. This sets her on a new path. Back in modern times, she is able to pursue her romantic interest. Her hesitancy vanishes because of this epiphany. No one gives Trinn this information. She comes to it in a flash of insight all on her own-and because of it, the story has a different ending than it might without it.
Revelation, on the other hand, comes from outside the character. Someone may inform the character, either knowingly or unknowingly, giving new information to the protagonist. Revelations may come through spoken word, an object, or any other clue the writer can devise.
In The Heart's Longing, Trinn is privy to some revelations throughout the story. By going back in time, she finds out a great deal of information from the characters inhabiting that part of history. These nuggets help her back in her own time as she and Sidney try to solve the mystery that will preserve Briarcrest's memory for all time. Sidney also has a wealth of information to share with Trinn, and when she and Trinn examine a boxful of artifacts from Briarcrest, some of them prove to be revelations that make Trinn take certain actions as she travels back and forth in time. The information and the artifacts all come from outside of the protagonist herself. They are little discoveries that move the story in one direction after another.
Anatomy of an Epiphany
Epiphanies come only after the stage has been set. The character must be ready for her epiphany or it won't seem natural. This is accomplished by laying the groundwork, getting the character ready. It's called the setup, and, yes, the character is literally being set up for that punch-in-the-gut feeling that comes with an epiphany.
Once the setup has been completed, the trigger is set. Something happens that makes the character come to the realization, the epiphany. That "ah-ha" moment almost knocks her for a loop, and done properly, it has the same effect on the reader. That "ah-ha" moment is the final stage of the epiphany. As she recovers, the illumination she receives sets her off on the journey that will give her (and the reader) the fulfillment they seek. She then turns in a particular direction in order to get the girl, solve the mystery, and conquer adversity. These are the cycles of the story. Each revelation or epiphany resolves a crisis, no matter how small, and the character is able to more onward and upward to the end.
Something to think about: Epiphanies capitalize on character flaws. What type of blinders does the character wear? The flaws can tell the writer where the epiphanies will happen and can hint at ways that they can occur. When the blinders come off, the "ah-ha" moment will be that moment when a flaw is overcome. Try tying character flaws to epiphanies and see what can happen to the character and the story.
The Tempo of Revelations and Epiphanies
Revelations are usually about following a thread that leads to the end of the story. Each revelation gives the character a little more of the string to tug on, moving the protagonist toward the final scene.
By their nature, epiphanies are more momentous than revelations, but revelations are no less important. Think of revelations as those things that move the character in a forward motion, but epiphanies change the direction the character moves in.
One thing of note about epiphanies: the protagonist usually has to pay a price for the experience (and revelations are just given, without exacting much payment at all). This can be manifested as a separation from a lover or potential lover, a misunderstanding, or, in a mystery, the frustration at lack of information or insight. Will the lovers ever resolve their issues and get together? Will the detective ever figure out what really happened and identify the murderer? The cost of the epiphany must be paid to gain the reward. This cost and resulting reward must be measured. It contributes to the tension and relief of each scene, chapter, and finally story.
The writer can't fill the entire book with tension only to gain relief at the very end. Readers would be overwhelmed, worn out, or just plain overloaded. Each story should contain little ups and downs, tensions followed by moments of relief. Think of one of those stock market graphs. Up, down, up, down, but the overall trend is rising toward the apex, just like in a story. Every little rise (tension) is counterbalanced with a slight fall (resolution / relief), followed by another rise as tension builds again. As the story ends, the final "big bang" happens. Tension builds, as the character is set up for an epiphany, the epiphany serves as a resolution that turns the character in a specific direction. As she moves through the story, the set-up begins again and tension builds until the final scene is played out.
The visual of the stock graph also reflects the ebb and flow of revelations in a story, little successes gained, a little ground lost in conflict, misunderstandings or red herrings. Then, another revelation is given to the character; a little piece of information gives her momentum again. This pacing is important to the story. Tension and resolution must be measured in just the right amounts and when relief comes in the form of a revelation-or an epiphany-it should come at just the right moment to allow obstacles to be overcome, the mystery to be solved, or the lover to be embraced.
Epiphanies and the Reader
Since epiphanies are usually deep-seated realizations on the part of the protagonist, they give insight into the character's psyche, thus increasing the intimacy the reader feels with the character. An epiphany can alter the course of the story in a powerful and emotional way. The reader will stand at the crossroads with the character and feel the impact of her epiphany in ways that could not be elicited without it. And because an epiphany will cause a character to make a decision to change, it has it's own built-in "mystery," because there is always the question: will the character accept the new knowledge, change, and move in a different direction? Or will she reject it, refuse to change, and forfeit solving the mystery or getting the girl. For just a brief moment, the reader will hold her breath and wonder.
Identifying Revelation and Epiphany Scenes
To identify where the points in the story are that would benefit from a revelation or an epiphany, start with a list of all the major events that will take place. Think about how revelation might play a part in the scene or event. If the character has a secret or a flaw to be overcome, or if the scene lends itself to exposing some critical information, it might be a good place for one of these devices to move the plot along. Try out this method and see what it does for the story.
Epiphanies are terrific plot devices, a way of altering the course of a story to facilitate it to conclusion. It can also deepen characters and provide intimacy with the character for the reader. Readers want to identify with characters. They want to discover what will happen next, why characters act the way they do, and the secrets or past events that shape their behaviors. Using epiphanies and revelations can be the means to a story that lingers with readers long after they have turned the last page.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist); The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles; and The Heart's Longing—Book Three of The Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write (JAW) and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.