Let me begin with a brief story about one of my recent realizations.
It had been a long morning of editing already when I stopped for a little break. I opened up a browser and looked at the news for ten minutes or so, and then got back to it. I’d been editing someone else’s novel. Not a bad one, mind you, but editing can be exhausting work.
I soldiered on and got through another 5 pages before I paused again, this time wandering into the kitchen to find something to eat. I wasn’t really hungry, but I needed something to—I don’t know—satiate . . . something. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
But I told myself I was just procrastinating, and I got back to the editing. Three pages this time. And then I gave in and ate a few grapes.
I forced myself back to the computer and finished off the chapter, and then I went upstairs for a shower, with that mysterious lingering hunger still nagging at me. Did I need to exercise more? I’d just come off of three weeks of illness, so I was certainly a little out of shape.
Maybe it was a sense of disappointment with myself for being impatient with the kids that morning?
But no, that wasn’t quite it either. After all, I wasn’t quite as bad as the young father I’d dreamed up for a story I’d written recently, a story in need of edits I was procrastinating on doing.
Wait! That was it! I wasn’t writing. I was avoiding my own creative work. That’s what was nagging at me. My God. I needed to get back to it.
Epiphany (Moments of Clarity)
The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek root epiphaneia, meaning manifestation or appearance. It’s made up of epi, meaning “to,” and phaineim, meaning “to show.” So it literally means “to show to.”
Some people talk of “the” epiphany in a story, referring to a singular moment of clarity, but there can be small epiphanies throughout, places where a feeling or subconscious idea rises to conscious thought.
When might you need to render realizations or moments of clarity in your storytelling? They occur when a character comes to understand any of the following:
- The existence of a problem
- The nature of a problem
- The source of a problem
- The emotion the problem is causing
- The need to address the problem
- The solution to a problem
- Or at least a plan for tackling the problem
The challenge in writing a moment of clarity is that you need to earn it. It’s a hallmark of novice writing that realizations crop up out of nowhere, often denoted by some variation of “suddenly, he realized.” In a story written by a child, such non sequitors are adorable. But the rest of us can’t get away with neglecting cause and effect.
We need to earn the moment of clarity through accrual, buildup, crescendo.
A problem begins as a vague feeling of unrest. The character attempts to address the problem but finds each subsequent solution inadequate. He mulls over the problem, but doesn’t find his moment of clarity until something in his external world or within his train of thought brings the subconscious to the level of consciousness.
That’s more or less how it happened for me on that morning when I realized that my avoidance of writing was making me deeply unsatisfied. It accrued over the course of about two hours.
I’m currently reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, which has multiple moments of clarity in every chapter so far. In fact, it’s turning out to be a veritable instruction manual in how to earn moments of clarity. I’ll give you a fairly simple and subdued one here. I occurs in the fourth chapter, roughly 10% of the way into the book. Our protagonist, Circe, has just encountered a mortal, a fisherman. She’s unfamiliar with mortals; this is only her second time seeing any. But she’s very curious about them:
“Hail, mortal,” [I said.]
He fumbled his nets but did not drop them. “Hail,” he said. “What goddess do I address?”
His voice was gentle in my ears, sweet as summer winds.
“Circe,” I said.
“Ah.” His face was carefully blank. He told me much later it was because he had not heard of me, and feared to give offense. He knelt on the rough boards. “Most reverend lady. Do I trespass in your waters?”
“No,” I said. “I have no waters. Is that a boat?”
Expressions passed across his face, but I could not read them. “It is,” he said.
“I would like to sail upon it,” I said.
He hesitated, then began to steer closer to the shore, but I did not know to wait. I waded out through the waves to him and pulled myself aboard. The deck was hot through my sandals, and its motion pleasing, a faint undulation, like I rode upon a snake.
“Proceed,” I said.
How stiff I was, dressed in my divine dignity that I did not even know I wore. And he was stiffer still. He trembled when my sleeve brushed his. His eyes darted whenever I addressed him. I realized with a shock that I knew such gestures. I had performed them a thousand times—for my father, and my grandfather, and all those mighty gods who strode through my days. The great chain of fear.
So here we have Circe coming to realize the mortal’s fear and empathizing with it. In this case, the fact that it’s a realization is abundantly clear as Miller writes, “I realized with a shock.”
When you look back at the passage, you can see all the signs pointing to the mortal’s fear, starting with his fumbling with his nets and culminating in his trembling and his eyes darting around—gestures familiar to Circe.
Note the crescendo towards consciousness, though? We begin with her perceiving the early signs of his fear, but not being able to read them. We’re even informed of her ignorance (“I could not read them”; “I did not know to wait”; the “divine dignity I did not even know I wore.”) But then we get that moment of recognition (“I knew such gestures.”). And so we move from perception to recognition, from “I did not know” to “I knew.”
How to Crescendo
The above example is, as I said, pretty simple. And the moment of clarity is not an earth-shattering one. Still, we can see some of the key principles of Ephiphany-Building even in this minor instance.
We need some sense of time passing in order for a feeling to rise to (the clarity of) conscious thought. Within the story itself, it may only be minutes between the initial perception and the realization, but it needs to be properly stretched out, with multiple signals along the way that point to the realization. In the example above we see this progression:
- A sign of his fear
- Her enthusiasm in meeting him blinds her to his emotion
- Another sign of his fear
- Ignored because of her desire to approach him and his world (his boat)
- A third sign of his fear
- Met with her inability to read them
- A fourth sign of his fear
- Eclipsed by her eagerness to be near him
- The final signs of his fear
- Which she recognizes based on her own experiences
Context; or a Running Start
We need events prior to the initial feeling or perception to be such that they logically and plausibly would lead to the moment of clarity. The only thing self-evident in the excerpt I’ve included is the fact that she has showed deference to her father and grandfather her whole life.
But prior to this scene, we’ve also seen her fascination with mortals, which began with her meeting Prometheus when he was punished for giving fire to mortals, but which we also see when her father boasts of causing the deaths of human astronomers, and she feels sympathy for them. We’ve seen her cloistered inside the halls of her father’s palace, and we’ve also just seen her abandoned by the only family member who seemed to love her. So coming into this chapter, she’s desperately lonely.
Given the context prior to this scene with the fisherman, her fascination with mortals and her ignorance of her own divine nature are all earned. And it’s those things that initially keep her from recognizing the mortal’s fear for what it is.
An epiphany—or, as I’ve been calling it, a moment of clarity—needs to be a climax. Save the clarity for a specific moment. Circe mentions the fisherman’s fear early in the passage, but it’s delivered via a retrospective “He told me much later.” The character in the scene is not aware of the mortal’s fear until the climax of the scene.
Think about the difference between emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Early in the scene, you can convey emotions and feelings. And actions, too—the character can do things. But save the thinking for later. Again, the moment of clarity is a moment when something un- or sub-conscious rises to consciousness. So don’t give us much consciousness early on.
Contrast and Movement
The moment of clarity should be new for the character. That much seems obvious. But I’ve seen people write scenes in which the character’s realization was just an intensification of a thought the character had earlier in the scene.
The moment should also move the character. In the scene from Circe, the character comes away from this interaction understanding that she is feared and respected. In her life up to this point, she has rarely been respected and never revered.
Workshop Your Own Moments of Clarity
In examing a moment of clarity in your own writing, it helps to examine your end point first and then work backwards. Follow these steps to strenghthen an epiphany in your story.
1. What’s the epiphany? Identify it clearly. Is it a specific moment?
2. Trace the distinct steps that bring it about. As we saw with both my own anecdote and the excerpt from Circe, there were stages that each character went through on the way to the moment of clarity.
3. Did it begin as something subconscious—as a feeling or emotion or perception?
4. Prior to that early subconscious starting point for the scene, do you have adequate context? Have previous scenes prepared readers to understand why the moment of clarity makes sense and why/how it’s necessary for the character’s progression?
5. Does the moment move the character? Does it have consequence for ensuing scenes in the story?
I have other articles that examine how to move characters within scenes and how to convey interiority. Check them out to help you create momentum.
- Use Beats to Move Characters within Scenes
- Escalating Complications
- 10 Lessons from “Cat Person” on Interiority
This article is part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly hop or to join, click here and/or search #AuthorToolboxBlogHop on Twitter and Pinterest (here’s the group board).
Oh, this is super helpful, thank you!! It’s so difficult to find specific writing advice that isn’t aimed towards complete beginners/isn’t so rooted in a specific vocabulary/theory that it’s incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t read whatever writing books the author is paraphrasing. I’m in the process of devouring your other articles as well, but I wanted to comment on this one specifically as it’s the only one I found that was actually helpful haha. Thank you so much!
[…] previously written on how to build toward character realizations and epiphanies, which also requires some movement over […]
[…] not uncommon in Madeline Miller’s Circe (in fact, see my previous article on the blog here about The Key to Epiphanies, Realizations, and Moments of Clarity, which uses a passage from Circe as an […]
This is very relevant to where I am in my current WIP as I’m building toward an epiphany for my female protagonist. It’s a bigger and I’m trying to get it right.
Yeah, those big ones can be tricky. They really need to be earned.
I love how you point out that it’s adorable when kids do it…ahhh, the privileges wasted on youth!
No kidding. And they also have all the energy and their brains grow so fast. I just want a little of what they get to have.
Interesting. I’ve never sat down and thought about it. Thanks for pointing it out. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
This is a great article. And that you for not just illustrating it, but providing instructions on how to achieve the same results in my own writing. Too many writing blogs neglect this step.
Oh, thanks, Michele! Given how practical your articles are, this means a lot.
I couldn’t agree more. There are events–epiphanies–that do more to order my life and thinking than I deserve. Good article.
Yeah. I once overheard a debate among some writers about whether epiphanies exist in real life, and I was flabbergasted that it was even a question.
This is such a great article, not least of which is because I loved Circe. I’m thinking back on some of my fictional moments of clarity, and the ones that stand out in my mind at the moment are the larger ones that have been forshadowed for a long time, and there’s an external trigger that causes the big realization. I’m not sure if I’m doing it right, but I think it lines up with what you’re saying.
Thanks, Raimey! Circe is phenomenal, isn’t it?
This is a very insightful analysis, particularly where you note that a character will try to resolve the problem without fully understanding it, and how the character will almost wallow or muddle in their confusion, until something external provides the proper circumstances for a breakthrough.
Thank you for sharing.