Discover Anagnorisis!

12 Jan

by Julie Eshbaugh


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Anagnorisis (pronounced something like “and ignore all this,”) is a fancy word that refers to the moment in a novel or play when the hero makes a discovery and moves from ignorance to knowledge.  If you’ve heard that classic line of dialogue, “Luke, I am your father,” then you have a clear example of a moment of anagnorisis for a character.  Not only is the knowledge gained by an instance of anagnorisis often startling, it is generally game-changing.  Once the character has this new piece of information, things usually can’t return to the way they were before.

The Greeks developed the use of anagnorisis through Aristotelian tragedy.  In this context, anagnorisis went beyond the simple recognition of some previously unknown fact or circumstance; it generally involved the recognition of a previously hidden “truth.”  The hero’s discovery went beyond the sudden awareness of another person, but included awareness of that person’s true nature.

In the Aristotelian tradition, the best tragedies involve a moment of anagnorisis when the hero discovers his or her own true identity or nature.  Consider, for example, Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother without knowing what he is doing, but later, at the moment of anagnorisis, discovers the truth.  Compare this to the tragedy of Medea, who kills her own children, but is aware that they are her children all along.  Aristotle believed that the best tragic heroes were those who experienced a sudden understanding of themselves and their actions – an anagnorisis that came too late.

But don’t imagine that anagnorisis is limited to tragedy.  This plot devise of the ancient Greeks works just as well in comedies and mysteries.  For a contemporary film example of the comedic use of anagnorisis, think of the scene in WEDDING CRASHERS where Vince Vaughn discovers that the cute redhead he’s been chasing is a lot more complex than she had originally seemed (starting with the fact that her claim to be a virgin stands in stark contrast to her very sensual true persona.)  Anagnorisis can be employed just as well in the context of a mystery.  For examples, look no further than the films of M. Night Shyamalan, particularly THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE.

What do you think of anagnorisis?  Do you believe it can be a clever way of working a twist into your plot, or do you see it as a simple trick of “smoke and mirrors” that takes little more than the simple withholding of information?  Have you ever used it in your own writing?  I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

 

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15 Responses to “Discover Anagnorisis!”

  1. Heather January 12, 2011 at 2:44 AM #

    I love anagnorisis, especially in some of the examples you used.

    However, I always second guess myself when trying to use it in my own writing. I guess I feel like the anagnorisis moment is positive, there’s a fine line between it and deus ex machina (like, “oh! now that Character X knows Y about themselves, all their problems are solved! yipee!!”). I never can tell if I’m crossing that line or not! If I’m writing an anagnorisis moment and the discovery is negative, I usually find that I’m only “resorting” to it because my major internal/external conflicts are too weak to carry the plot, and they need a little more spice.

    Excellent post, however! It’ll give me something to think about…maybe I’ll give myself another shot at using this device!

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 12, 2011 at 11:19 AM #

      Hey Heather! I relate to everything you said here about using anagnorisis in your own writing! I also worry that it will come across like a “cheap trick” to get out of a plot problem. But then I look at a masterpiece like Oedipus and I realize that, done well, it’s poetic. Good luck working with it! I’m glad you plan to give it another look! 🙂

  2. Angela January 12, 2011 at 6:10 AM #

    I love how I always learn something new from your posts!

    I`m taking a performing arts class, and I`ve studied Oedipus and Medea. You have a point: anagnorisis is what made Oedipus an amazing play. Medea was also good, but I felt that it didn`t stand up to Oedipus. Now I know why.

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 12, 2011 at 11:23 AM #

      Hey Angela! I’m glad you feel that my posts teach you something new, but I’ll let you in on a little secret – they always teach me something new, too. 😉 I generally post about something I sort of discovered and knew nothing about, so I investigate it and make a post out of it. So I guess we’re learning together! 🙂

  3. Pico January 12, 2011 at 3:12 PM #

    Fantastic article! I definitely agree that “anagnorisis” adds something to the plot, in fact in the examples you gave it MAKES the plot. I thought this was particularly interesting because it ties in with ‘the snowflake method’ and how it gets you to map out your character’s story arcs, including their ‘epiphany’- which if, done well, could amount to an anagnorsis a la Luke Skywalker. Also I really like this word Anagnorsis. My goal is now to use it in every day life outside of a context where it would sound like I’m talking about some disease I contracted, haha!

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 12, 2011 at 3:24 PM #

      LOL I thought the same thing about how it sounds like a disease! I actually had to find one of those sites where you press a speaker button and someone pronounces the word for you, or I’d still be saying it wrong. 😉 Good luck working it into conversation! I’m sure a few jaws will drop! Thanks for the comment Pico. 🙂

      • Pico January 12, 2011 at 4:00 PM #

        No worries! And I forgot to mention that I’m working through the snowflake method (at step four atm) and it’s going swimmingly! Thank you 🙂

        • Julie Eshbaugh January 12, 2011 at 4:07 PM #

          That’s so great! I’m using it on my current WIP, too, but I keep changing the focus of the idea and having to start over again with step two. :/

  4. Rowenna January 12, 2011 at 3:32 PM #

    Great post, Julie! I love you define these elements in such an approachable way! I love how often these moments of revelation for the character is also a moment of clarity for the audience–almost like a kind of intellectual catharsis.

    Tricky question, too–I think this could go either way. As an element of character development, it’s genius–there are of course moments when we have “ta-dah!” moments in real life. So, ta-dahs can be a great part of character development or plot twists as well. However, I can also see it (like any other writing element) misused–there has to be reason behind it! And few spontaneous reveals solve everything about a plot–I can see it as a poorly done smoke-and-mirrors when one flimsy revelation somehow makes everyone’s emotional and psychological crises resolve 🙂 If anything, I can see it more realistically escalating crisis–I’ve rarely learned something new that didn’t make things more complicated!

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 12, 2011 at 3:38 PM #

      Hey Rowenna! I totally agree with what you say about how this is one of those tools that could just as easily help or hinder a story. But your final line really hit home – learning something new almost always complicates things. Definitely something to keep in mind when considering how to use it in a WIP. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  5. Deb January 16, 2011 at 7:17 PM #

    I especially like it when that twist recasts the story in a whole new light. It’s like experiencing the story all over as things in the shadows come to light! Kind of love it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 16, 2011 at 8:05 PM #

      Hey Deb! I love that, too. When it’s done well, anagnorisis comes across as genius! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  6. authorguy April 4, 2011 at 8:56 AM #

    It sounds like there are at least two forms of anagnorisis, one involving sudden new knowledge, such as the ‘I am your father’ moment, as opposed to a sudden new perception of something that was already known but not correctly understood, as in The Sixth Sense. I much prefer the latter, although both can be poorly done. My own writing is hevily geared towards what characters perceive rather than what they see, so the latter method is the one I use more.

  7. Stephanie April 26, 2014 at 12:32 PM #

    Hi,
    I was wondering I the revelation at the end of the importance of being earnest could be described as anagnorisis, if you have never read it / seen the movie then it is set in Victorian society and is about a man who has two identities to allow him to be a respectable guardian in the country and live extravagantly in the town, in the final scene jacks parents are revealed (as he was foud abandoned at a train station as a baby and this causes him problems as Lady Bracknell will not let her marry his daughter) This revelation leads to the situation being resolved and although I am aware it uses dues ex machine and is comical I was wondering if anagnorisis is also applicable and if so how I would use it in this context (I am due to sit my higher English exam and came accross this article by chance but thought it might be a good word to use in essays)
    Thank you for the informative post 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 27, 2014 at 7:42 PM #

      Hi Stephanie! I hadn’t thought about THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST as an example of anagnorisis, but I think you are onto something! The revelation you describe definitely fits the characteristics of the device. I just did a quick web search of “The Importance of Being Earnest Anagnorisis” and found a few essays that agree with you.
      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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