by Julie Eshbaugh
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!