On Epiphanies

I’m in the second year of a Creative Writing MFA program, which means that I’ve gained just enough confidence to be disagreeable. Last year I nodded my head in agreement with everyone, convinced that if something didn’t sound right, it was just because I didn’t understand it well enough. Now I find myself disagreeing with everyone– my professors, my advisor, even the authors of the textbooks we read.

In my fiction writing class this semester, we’ve been reading a book called Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction Writing by David Jauss (yes, that’s a very long title). In general, I agree with a lot of the things Jauss decries in his book (writing fiction in the present tense has its limitations, writing what you know can make the writing process more about record keeping than discovery, and so on). But then, right there in Chapter Five, he launched an offensive on my personal favorite– the epiphany.

Jauss starts by complaining that in his thirty-odd years of teaching and editing, he’s read thousands of short stories, and “would conservatively estimate that between a fourth and a third of them featured as their climax that blast-of-trumpets/choir-of-angels moment of sudden insight we call an epiphany.” He discusses stories where epiphanies don’t work (James Joyce’s “Araby,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) and cautions fiction writers to avoid an overreliance on the lightbulb going off in the character’s head.

Maybe it’s because I grew up addicted to mysteries and cut my writer’s teeth on writing essays, but I sort of thought that writing was about discovery, about sharing what you’d learned. In some ways, the hard things of life we’ve all gone through gain a sense of sanctification if we’ve learned something from them and can share what we’ve learned with others.  The very first piece I ever had published included an honest-to-goodness epiphany where I looked in the mirror and heard a voice in my head that told me exactly the opposite of something I wanted to hear, and since then I’ve relied on the epiphany frequently, in fiction and non-fiction. My characters suddenly decide they have to get engaged right now. They figure out who the bad guy is while looking out at ocean waves. They’re like little prophets walking around in my mind, waiting for inspiration to come to them.

What about you– do you like reading about epiphanies? Do you write them? Do you think it’s lazy when others do? Or have you gone merrily on your way like I have for my entire life until last week not thinking much about it?

About Shelah

(Managing Editor) doesn't know how to say "no." That's why she's training for another marathon, throwing together a Sharing Time, writing a blog post, and trying to get a batch of cookies in the oven before the kids get home from school. If you ask her to write an article or bring dinner to someone, she'll be sure to say "yes" to that too. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids.

8 thoughts on “On Epiphanies

  1. I have thrown books across the room that use epiphanies as a cheat, or as a quick way to wrap a story/plot line/character up.

    I have no problem with epiphanies in stories – it’s how life works, how people think! – but it frustrates me when one epiphany makes everything perfect and tied up beautifully in ribbon. I much prefer the stories or essays that show the light bulb moment, but then follow through with the mess that happens AFTER or BECAUSE of the clarity.

    I don’t think it’s lazy to use epiphanies as plot devices – as long as the consequences are followed through. “…So I knew I had to marry X not Y/take the job/move to Siberia/flush the goldfish. The end” is lazy writing. It’s much more challenging/difficult to start a piece with an epiphany than close with one, and I think it is much more rewarding for the writer and reader both as well.

  2. I haven’t read the Jauss book, so I’m guessing a bit at where he’s going with things. With that caveat, it seems as if he’s cautioning against an over-reliance on the characters in the piece having epiphanies, rather than dissing on epiphanies in general.

    I absolutely agree that writing (and reading, for that matter) should be about discovery. The author should discover as she (or he) writes. Ideally, the audience should also experience an epiphany or two (doesn’t need to be a 100 watt epiphany all the time!). But sometimes when the characters themselves have obvious epiphanies it can almost get in the way of the reader’s experience.

  3. I’m with Kellie–I think it absolutely depends on how the epiphany gets used in the story. As a quick fix for plot problems: no. As a genuine part of the character’s development or story arc? I think it’s fair game.

    Also, like you I’m a big fan of epiphanies in mysteries. There’s something so satisfying about everything dropping into place.

  4. Shelah,
    Great topic. As a kid I ingested a steady diet of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. I understand about epiphany, especially with mystery genre fiction, but looking back I realize that I just wanted to see if I could figure it out, or see what happened.

    I think it’s important that there be an epiphany of sorts in a book, but I make a distinction between the reader having the epiphany, and the main character having an epiphany. I like the former, but not so much the latter.

    Of course there must be some evolution of character as the story develops, and that ultimately feeds my own satisfaction at the end having finished a good book.But that’s still my epiphany.

    I think of Kite Runner or Cry the Beloved Country or The Grapes of Wrath. There is not big smack at that end, but a subtle understanding that I feel feeds my soul.
    But then look at one of the most famous short-stories, and one they use lots to teach writing, Cathedral, by Raymond Carver–or The Necklace by Maupassant. Do those count as epiphany stories? It seems to me the epiphany works better in the short story, but that doesn’t make sense.

    I’m not super moved by those particular stories. I feel like I’m an onlooker in a different way that in the novels I cited.

    So, I don’t know. Good question.

  5. I like short stories when the climax is an epiphany, but not novels. While novels can certainly have powerful epiphanies for the main character, I prefer novels where the epiphany happens for the reader, not explicitly for the main character.

  6. What ZD Eve said.

    I also agree with what the other commenters have said: the problem comes when the story is too reliant on the main character having an epiphany, especially when that epiphany is expressed internally. One “rule” (if there are hard and fast rules in fiction writing, which there probably aren’t, but I’m still going to call it a rule here) is that the climax or turning point in a story must always occur in a scene. A great example of this is Andre Dubus’ short story “The Fat Girl.” (If you haven’t read it, read it. It’s great.) The moment the main character actually changes, her moment of epiphany, occurs when she opens a candy bar in front of her husband. We don’t get this internal narration, like “And suddenly she realized that her husband was a giant idiot and knew that she must leave him.” But we infer this epiphany from her actions.

    So I’m not against epiphanies in fiction at all. Epiphanies mean change, which is what good stories are all about. I’m against summarizing abstract feelings instead of showing them in a scene, which might be what Jauss takes issue with as well.

  7. I’ve seen several kinds of epiphanies, some I’ve liked, some I’ve hated. I really hate the ones that go, “and then the main character realized what to do.” But the author neither tells the reader what that is, nor does the author show how the main character came to the realization. The main character just goes off and does strange things to bring the story to an end.

    I’ve seen mysteries that work like that, when the “sleuth” realizes who the murderer is, but the author didn’t provide enough clues for the reader to realize as well, and everyone has to wait for the Big Reveal at the end (enforced epiphanies, anyone?).

    On the other hand, as a character grows and struggles, there can come a point where the character realizes (there’s that word again) things like “what really matters” or “what price has to be paid to succeed” or “what’s really going on, so now we have to do this instead” and maybe things do fall into place. I enjoy a well-done version of that type of epiphany, that lets me, as reader, grow and struggle and realize right along with the character.

    That said, I have to say that I am intrigued by Selwyn aka Kellie’s idea of starting a story with an epiphany instead of ending a story that way. Sounds like a great writing exercise. Thanks!

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