Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Whether you think of it as an epiphany, a sudden realization or a shocking revelation, the instances in which an undiscovered truth dawns on your character are important. Revelations don’t necessarily have to change the outcome of your story, but they should impact on your reader’s investment in the story, and therefore color how much the outcome resonates with them.
In this way, a properly deployed revelation can make or break your story. That’s why, in this article, I’m going to explore how to use revelations effectively and the different types you can choose from.
How do I use a revelation?
The idea originates in religious texts, in which an epiphany would come to a character as the physical manifestation of a deity and impart some kind of wisdom. This wisdom would reveal something to the character, either about themselves or the world around them. Epiphany moments shouldn’t be confused with climaxes, though they are usually an emotional high point for your character’s journey, and usually come nearer to the end of your book than the start.
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.
– Janni Simner from Fiction Notes
Like a deity shining down holy light or whispering in a character’s ear, a sudden realization in a secular, storytelling sense is enlightening knowledge that presents itself – as if by magic or theological design – to your character. It could be a realization that they come to by themselves; it could be new information given to them by another character; it could be a secret they overhear; or it could be something that only the reader knows. The latter could happen, for instance, if your main character is an unreliable narrator.
Also, your main character doesn’t have to be the only one to have revelations – side characters could come to them too, enriching the emotional subplots as well the main one.Revelations aren’t just for heroes; your secondary characters deserve an emotional arc too.Click To Tweet
How do I figure out what the revelation should be?
Strictly speaking, some would argue that epiphanies are defined as being internal realizations, whereas revelations are external ones. For example, if your character became insanely jealous over a friend of theirs dating someone, it might lead to an epiphany moment in which they realize they’re actually in love with that friend. If this fact was learned from an external source, that would be a revelation.
In this respect, epiphanies normally draw on character flaws – defects that make your character unknowingly ignorant about something. If you nail down your character’s flaws, you’ll naturally arrive at what their epiphany – or epiphanies, if they’re really flawed – should be. A revelation, on the other hand, is normally the uncovering of a hidden truth. Your character could discover they are actually adopted, for instance, or who the real killer of their spouse was.
Different types of revelation
‘Love epiphanies’ (or ‘friendship epiphanies’) are undoubtedly the most common kinds of realizations characters have. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has one when she and Darcy learn of Lydia and Wickham eloping, leading Elizabeth to realize that Darcy will probably not want to be associated with her family any more.
It was […] exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
The example I just used also proves that revelations don’t always have to be correct. Your characters should make mistakes – including coming to false conclusions or assumptions. These misdirections can be great suspense-builders or “Surely, not!” hooks to keep your reader’s attention, especially when you prove them wrong with another revelation.A character revelation doesn’t have to be true, especially if you can fix it with another.Click To Tweet
They’ve been doing the wrong thing this whole time. These are ethical lessons usually learned by flawed heroes, antiheroes and sometimes villains who see the error of their ways. It’s that, “What have I done..?” moment. A Christmas Carol is essentially one man going through ‘revelation therapy’, as three ghosts help him to realize the error of his selfish ways.
These are two sides of the same coin. A character could experience an, “All is lost” moment in which they realize that they have failed, or will fail, at their goal (which will likely turn out not to be true… unless you’re in a sadistic mood).
One of the most traumatic instances of this is near the end of Toy Story 3, in which the toys (falsely) realize they are heading to their fiery deaths, and hundreds of adult cinema goers desperately try to swallow the embarrassing lumps in their throats. Alternately, they could come to an, “Everything is going to be alright” realization instead, which is the common emotional high point in ‘feel good’ stories – usually ones involving a literal journey of self-discovery, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
This type of realization is extremely common in crime fiction and murder mysteries (and hospital dramas). Agatha Christie was a huge fan of these, often leading Poirot to come to his “Eureka!” case-cracking moments with seemingly inconsequential, tiny details, or throwaway comments from other characters.
Is there a difference between a plot twist and a shocking revelation?
Whether there’s a difference or not still seems to be the subject of debate, and that’s because it’s a fairly subtle one. Generally, a shocking revelation changes a character’s view of information they’ve learned, but won’t necessarily alter the plot, whereas a plot twist usually does. However, a shocking revelation could also cause a character to suddenly choose a difference course of action or have a change of heart, so it could have the same effect as a plot twist without being a ‘twist’, per se. And, a twist will always ‘reveal’ something, so in a way, it’s a type of revelation, but not usually the introspective kind that we’re talking about here.
The two can be hard to differentiate, though. In Fight Club, the reveal that Tyler Durden isn’t real is a plot twist, and that twist causes the unnamed narrator to undergo a revelation about the true state of his mental health. It doesn’t change the plot, though, as his actions have already set things into motion that he can’t prevent.A revelation is the emotional (rather than practical) climax of your story.Click To Tweet
The most famous ‘plot twist’ of them all – the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father – doesn’t actually change the main plot (the Death Star would have been destroyed regardless) but it does alter Luke’s view of himself as well as the emotional subplot of the film. This makes it more of a shocking revelation. It’s not worth getting too much of a headache over, but it does prove that a plot twist leading into a revelation for your character can be doubly impactful.
Revelations must be earned
Depending on what it is, a revelation is either a reward or a comeuppance for your character, but either way, it has to feel earned. This means it should generally come towards the end of your story as a prelude to the big finish, but you could use one as the inciting incident towards the start of your story, too. Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, just as Percy Jackson discovers he’s the son of Greek God Poseidon in The Lightning Thief. However, saving another revelation for later on is still a good idea as it’s a clear indicator of growth – like marking your child’s height in pencil lines on their bedroom wall. Similarly, the revelation will ideally develop naturally – you will likely come to realise it as the same time as your character. Whatever kind of revelation you choose, just make sure it packs an emotional punch.
What do you think is the secret to a great revelation, and where have you seen it done well? Let me know in the comments. Or, for advice on when revelations can be used to their best potential, check out How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain and Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb.