Epiphany in fiction gives the story its profound literary quality.
| "Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth."
Azar Nafisi -author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
What makes a story come close to being perfect, even if you believe there is no such thing as perfect fiction? If you are thinking of bestsellers, some or most of the time, their quality stays limited to the success of their sales records. Then, some readers may read only for the plot, and that is fine if that is what they want.
On the other hand, quite a number of readers want more than titillation and plot twists. They want fiction that comes close to being perfect. They want fiction with a certain profound literary quality. Most of the time, this quality is achieved through epiphany or the revelation that shows up at the end of a story. Epiphany is what raises some stories above others by giving them a depth and lyricism reminiscent of poetry. This happens when a character, especially the main character, experiences a realization or a sudden understanding, usually in a private and subjective way.
Epiphany is a term that takes its roots from religion, as it refers to the moment when the magi met the Christ child. This moment is interpreted as the celebration of divine presence in the creation. An allusion to this in the scriptures is the idea of light. "The light shall shine upon thy ways" [Job 22:28]. This mention of light can be found not only in the Bible but also in the texts of other religions. When you apply epiphany to fiction, you may say that epiphany is recognizing the truth or any one truth in a story with a sudden-light-bulb-over-the-head, 'ah-ha!' effect as seen in cartoons.
Although most great literature employed epiphany earlier, James Joyce was the first author to define it as: when a piece reveals "its soul, its what-ness leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany." Joyce used epiphany as a literary device in his short stories in the Dubliners by making his characters to suddenly discover a truth about themselves or their social conditions and then change their views and actions.
Epiphany usually belongs with the protagonist, but other characters in a story may experience it, too. Epiphany's success is in the direct reversal of what the character knew earlier. In Shakespeare's King Lear, the king not only discovers the truth about the characters of his daughters, but also he recognizes his own foolishness.
Epiphany usually happens in three steps. First step is when you acquaint your readers with the protagonist before the epiphany. Second step is when an event, a scene, an image, or other characters act as catalysts to challenge the protagonist's old way of thinking. The last step is when the protagonist recognizes something he had not understood before, and therefore, he undergoes a change. This moment of sudden recognition or understanding is the epiphany in the story, but an epiphany is not a simple insight by the character. Epiphany is a powerful device because of its emotional transcendental moment when its intensity becomes almost poetic.
Epiphanies are terrific plot devices to alter the course of a story. They also deepen the characters to provide an intimacy of them for the readers. An epiphany positions the protagonist in a crossroad and forces him to make a decision to change. As Star Trek readers can recall, there was even an Epiphany volume in the Vulcan's Soul books. In fact, most of the earlier Star Trek episodes I can remember ended with some kind of an epiphany.
In a novel, there can be several epiphanies that act as key points to forward the motion. In a book I read last year Down River by John Hart, the main character returns to the town he grew up in to experience epiphany after epiphany until he arrives at the larger truth about his own behavior and of those around him.
Great poems may end with an epiphany, also. In his poem Follower, Seamus Heaney, talks about how his father used the horse-plough and how he walked after him when a child. Then he finishes the poem with "But today / It is my father who keeps stumbling / Behind me, and will not go away."
If you are the kind of writer who learns to know the characters as the writing progresses and constructs the story accordingly, planning the epiphany from the beginning may not be possible. In that case, you'll probably reach that moment of revelation together with your character. Then, the best way to pinpoint the moment of epiphany is after you have written the story. Look for that moment of revelation for your main character. If you find it, you have a solid story; if it is not there, chances are you were too easy on your character and did not provide him with enough roadblocks and problems to overcome.
Not all endings may result in a change of action, however. Some writers may purposely end their stories in ambiguity after that moment of sudden discovery. Although this is a writer's choice, if not handled with expertise, it may leave the readers with an empty feeling and a "So what?" question.
Writing the epiphany is like writing a universal truth, but if you write about it through abstract words and meanings as if talking big, your fiction will come out dull and preachy. If you write, however, on something specific or particular and the truth is grasped in an ordinary moment, that truth will be universal. In other words, your pearls of wisdom should be presented through your story and the characters' actions, but not through a fancy sermon or a melodramatic moment.