An epiphany is a sudden moment of understanding, or a sudden perception, realization or insight. There are two major ways authors can exploit epiphanies in their stories. The first has to do with building a world that readers can relate to. The second has to do with what causes a character to change or act in a different way.
You have ordinary epiphanies all the time. Epiphanies happen when you suddenly realize you left your favorite set of earrings in the bathroom of the hotel you stayed at last weekend. They happen when you realize your mother is aging and will soon need care and assistance. These everyday realizations can be used by an author to build sympathy for a character. To best exploit these character epiphanies choose situations that most people can relate to. For example, not everyone has seen the ocean, but most people have seen a lake or pond or at least a river or small stream. Start with the most general situation you can and then get more specific. In fact, if you start with a general situation that is understandable, most readers will enjoy the journey you take them on from the usual to the unusual.
Describe the character’s mother and show her acting independent and self-sufficient. Then show through the daughter’s eyes, one small, but significant clue. Mom ate all the soft things on her plate at the restaurant and even though she cut the meat into tiny pieces, she hardly ate any. Extend that by having the daughter cringe at the idea of having to grind up meals for her mother. Usual to unusual. An epiphany doesn’t have to be explicitly stated to be powerful. Show off your showing skills.
The second kind of epiphany you can use is the kind characters have as they are working through their story problem. These are the kinds of epiphanies that happen when characters suddenly realize that their spouse has been cheating on them, their upstanding, by-the-rules father had a teenage arrest record, or their long-time best friend is dying. Stories are about change and how the characters handle the change. Each character will react differently when experiencing an epiphany. Take the time to exploit this moment. Draw it out and make it large in the reader’s mind. Call attention to it with sensory details and drama or if your story is already full of sensory details and drama, tone it down and slow the pace. The reader will sense a change and clue into the character’s epiphany.
Epiphanies tie into character growth and character growth is useful story fodder. Readers enjoy going along for the ride with the character as they learn to cope with the situation they are in. We may agree with their way of thinking at the beginning of the book. The character believes his father is a bit self-righteous, but he admires his dad’s tough stance on upholding morals. Then he discovers that his dad had an inky past. Whoa. The epiphany is a turning point for the character. How is he going to react to that? Will he accept that things are not always as they seem? Will he confront his dad, dig for details from friends and neighbors, or totally rebel and call his dad a hypocrite? Most importantly, how will this new information change the way this character reacts to the conflict he’s facing?
Two ways to use epiphanies: luring the reader into your story world and giving characters a way to grow that rivets the reader to the page.
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