Aristotle, in his poetics, argues that plot proceeds by means of discoveries and reversals, or, in Greek, anagnorosis and peripeteia. I only include the Greek to assist those who Google those terms — analysing the Greek words themselves will tell us nothing in particular.
In The One Basic Plot, I argue that at the heart of storytelling is the double reversal, the S curve of ‘we’re going to win — oh no, we’re going to lose — look, we’ve won even more than we thought’. I want to look at discoveries in the same way. Is it possible to uncover something which is crucial to all good stories, but which is a little bit more helpful than saying ‘when you write a story, make sure someone finds something out that they didn’t know’.
In Great Expectations, the entire novel turns around the discovery by Pip that his secret benefactor is not Miss Havisham, thus implying that he is to marry Estella, but the convict Magwitch, thus implying that his fortune is based on the proceeds of crime and dishonour.
In Nostromo, the plot turns on Fidanza discovering that being known as a man of complete honour is infinitely more important to him that actually being one, which leads him to steal an entire cargo of gold rather than return it missing one ingot, after someone used it to weigh themselves down in suicide by drowning, and subsequently, to marry the wrong daughter, which ultimately leads to his death.
In Winnie the Pooh, the plot of the Tigger episode ‘What do Tiggers eat?’ turns on the initial discovery that, contrary to his protestations that Tiggers eat almost everything, Tigger does not eat honey, acorns, thistles or much of the contents of Kanga’s larder, and then on the subsequent happy discovery that Tiggers like extract of malt, which Kanga gives to the hapless Roo as a strengthening medicine. As well as providing Tigger with much needed nourishment, this also gives him necessary accommodation, as he goes to stay with Kanga and Roo.
In the mystery story, of course, the discovery is the entire point of the story. This leads some people to believe that a mystery story is really nothing more than a literary trick, and as such of very little value, while there are other people who, once they have discovered mysteries, will read almost nothing else. What is true is that mystery has worked its way as an element into all kinds of stories over the last century.
You may be wondering if an anagnorisis is the same as an epiphany. The answer is no, although they may well be in many cases. An epiphany is a realisation — the moment of clarity which I write about in The One Basic Plot — whereas an anagnorisis is new information which reinterprets the story. As importantly, an epiphany is something we watch a character having, whereas anagnorisis is where we, the reader or viewer, also discover something. At the end of The Sixth Sense, we, the viewer, discover that Bruce Willis’s character is a ghost, which is the same discovery we make in High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, and, possibly, An Inspector Calls. However, in each of these cases, we would assume that the character himself already knew that.
Aristotle argues that when the discovery and the reversal are the same thing, the plot is superior to when the reversal is purely one of action.
Two men are fighting each other, both intent on killing the other. At first character A gains the upper hand. This is encouraging, because we, the reader, have decided that, all things being equal, we like character A and want him to win. However, just as he is about to strike the winning blow, character A stumbles on a rock, or a table, or his Spitfire throws a cylinder, and he is suddenly at the mercy of character B. Character B, suddenly confident in his good fortune, strikes home for the death blow. Just at that moment, however, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon appears and blasts character B into space, or character A finds that there is one more bullet in his gun after all, or character B’s gun jams, or his sword blade breaks, and character A finally finishes the job.
This is a double reversal, which is vastly superior to the single, Aristotelian reversal, where character A is looking good, but something happens, and character B wins anyway.
Nonetheless, supposing that there is something which character A can discover which gives him the upper hand — or, even better, a discovery which initially wrests the initiative from character A and gives it to B, but is then re-used by A to win anyway. Provided that it is necessary and probable, this is infinitely better than just a bit of action going to and fro.
We need to recognise here that the double reversal itself is something we see often enough in life, and especially in sports. We are making progress, there is a setback, we redouble our efforts, and get something better than we would have got if there had never been a setback.
The discovery is altogether less common, or, at least, the discovery that turns the plot. We love the story of Archimedes and his Eureka moment in the bath, especially as someone’s life depends on it. However, we know that most scientific discoveries are slower and more painstaking. We love the insignificant detail noticed by Poirot (or Wimsey, or Holmes) on which the case turns, but we know that real police work is about amassing a large amount of evidence and then getting the criminal to confess. Crimes in mysteries are committed by clever criminals, and solved by even cleverer detectives. Real crimes are generally committed by people who are nowhere near as clever as they think they are, and solved because the police build up a sufficiently complete picture of what happened for the inconsistencies to become apparent.
In other words, stories are all in the mind. They don’t have to reflect reality at all, but they do have to outdo it, otherwise we would do just as well to read the newspaper or our friends’ round-robin Christmas newsletters. Because they are in the mind, the thing which appeals directly to the mind, the discovery, is at least as powerful as the reversal.
So, is simply injecting a new piece of information into the story in some plausible way enough to lift it to the Aristotelian next level?
Aristotle’s key example play — and evidently one of his favourites, as it is one of mine — is Oedipus. For those other readers than yourself who have temporarily lost sight of the plot here, Oedipus was a young man on his travels who gets into a fight and kills another man. The reason he is travelling is that he was given a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, which are the most terrible things in his culture, and so he is putting as much distance between himself and his parents as he possibly can. He subsequently arrives at a city being terrorised by a Sphinx, who insists that everyone answer a riddle. Those who can’t, the Sphinx devours. The riddle is ‘what has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening’. Oedipus correctly answers that it is man, who goes about on all-fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with the aid of a stick as an old man. Having dealt with the Sphinx decisively, Oedipus is welcomed into the city, which has recently lost its king. The citizens make him the king, and he marries the widowed queen who, though somewhat older than himself, is a very desirable woman. All this takes place before the play begins.
What happens in the play is that plague has been devastating the city for some time, and Oedipus, who is becoming increasingly autocratic or even tyrannical, takes advice from the prophet Tiresias. The discovery is that the man Oedipus was not the son of the people who brought him up, but was the son of the previous king and current queen. Having received a prophecy that their son would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus’s real father had had him exposed on the mountainside as a baby, to be eaten by wolves. Instead, he was taken in and reared by the now-known-as foster parents. In his attempt to escape the prophecy, he has fulfilled it, becoming a parricide and committing incest with his mother. In grief and fury, Oedipus blinds himself and wanders off.
You can see why this was a favourite for Aristotle — it exactly illustrates how the reversals are the discoveries, though, in common with most of Greek drama, it is a single reversal, where a man who appears to be doing very well ends up doing very badly.
Greek theatre was physically designed in such a way that it was much easier to communicate discoveries than reversals. The amphitheatre carries sound perfectly to a large audience, providing that everyone is paying attention and not chatting. There was little opportunity for scenery, though, and likewise no chance for people to enter and exit by separate doors. Greek plays rarely, if ever (I couldn’t think of a single example) feature sword fights, which Shakespeare later used to great effect for introducing exciting action. Perhaps more importantly, the audience usually knew the story before the play began. Most of the subjects were mythological or legendary, and were explorations of what the watchers already knew, rather than introduction of new stories. This is why Sophocles begins his Oedipus play not with the conflict with the Sphinx, but in the period immediately before Oedipus’s demise.
In Shakespearian theatre, the reversal, and, more exactly, the double-reversal, becomes much more important in plotting. Shakespeare was able to stage action scenes which clearly stood up at the time, and, quite evidently still work today. In Hamlet, the essential discovery takes place right at the beginning: Hamlet’s father’s ghost informs him that Claudius, the usurping king, was his murderer. The climax is a sword fight where Shakespeare cleverly uses a poisoned sword which gets exchanged twice during the fight to bring about the deaths of Hamlet, Claudius, and Hamlet’s mother who was Claudius’s lover and now wife.
Shakespeare, indeed, makes extended use of dramatic irony, where we, the audience, already have information which is concealed from the characters. Hamlet kills Polonius because he thinks the man hiding behind the curtain is Claudius, which is the proximate cause of the duel that finally kills him. We the viewers know that Cordelia is good and her sisters bad, and that Desdemona is innocent but Iago wicked, whereas King Lear and Othello, respectively, only discover this when it is too late.
This ‘split discovery’, if I may call it that, is as crucial to Shakespeare’s technique as is the double-reversal. I am not arguing that Shakespeare invented either of these himself, but he was able to deploy them to much greater effect than Sophocles or even Aeschylus who knew only the straight discovery and the single reversal.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that there are no discoveries in Shakespeare that surprise the audience anywhere near as much as they surprise the characters. Even at the end of Macbeth, when Macbeth relies on the prophecies about Burnham Wood and Dunsinane Hill, and about being unkillable by any ‘of woman born’, we are not surprised when they turn out to be worthless — after all, we have long since stopped believing that anything the witches told him was of any benefit.
To some extent, this is an inevitable consequence of Shakespeare’s own use of dramatic irony. Anyone who has watched a couple of Shakespeare plays learns to look out in the next one for any character who is relying on any particular piece of information. In Henry IV Part II, for example, we are expecting things to go wrong for Falstaff because he is relying too much on Harry’s affection, and we see that the parlay which closes the rebellion is going to end badly for the rebels, even if we cannot quite work out how. To put it in modern terms, his audience has become genre-savvy.
Let us move on to consider how discoveries work in the novel and in short stories.
Arguably one of the first English novels is Robinson Crusoe, and this turns very definitely on a discovery: that Crusoe’s island is, if not inhabited, in use by cannibals. Having constructed for himself a tolerable existence, Crusoe now has to face the reality that he cannot stay safely on the island. This ushers in the final section.
Robinson Crusoe is an adventure novel. Pride and Prejudice, published ninety-four years later, is a romantic novel, or a novel of manners, or a society novel, or any term you choose, except for adventure. It’s interesting, then, that Pride and Prejudice makes much more deliberate use of the ironic, or split-discovery, and also of the dramatic reversal. The ironic subsists in this: we know right from the beginning that Lizzy and D’Arcy are meant for each other, D’Arcy discovers it about a third of the way through, and Lizzy doesn’t figure it out until the end. However, the close is triggered by a dramatic elopement, and D’Arcy’s response to it. There are, apart from those, no particular discoveries on which the story turns, though there are minor discoveries and reversals in every chapter.
I mentioned Great Expectations at the beginning. On second reading we know from the beginning that Pip is going to owe his fortune to Magwitch, not Miss Havisham. However, it would take a very astute reader to ask ‘Hmm, I wonder which character might be a mystery benefactor, with access to wealth, if it’s not Miss Havisham, who is implausible on character grounds?’ The discovery, when it comes, requires a complete reinterpretation, and explains why the later narrator-Pip is so hard on his earlier self.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies does not rely on discoveries at all. That is to say, although the boys discover various things about the island, they are essentially unimportant, and the great discovery, of ‘the beast’, is no discovery at all and known by the readers to be false. His later novel, Pincher Martin, though, depends entirely on a discovery which the reader only makes after finishing the book. We are left with an implicit question at the end: what is the story we have been reading? It is self-evidently not the story which we thought it was, of a man on a deserted island. Is it Pincher Martin’s dying stream of consciousness, or is it perhaps the dreams of the unnamed wife, triggered by the body washed ashore? In a sense, this is a split discovery but the other way around — we the readers don’t know what’s going on until long after the story is finished.
This is not to say that the modern novel necessarily plays around with the readers’ minds in this way. Nineteen-eighty-four turns on a very simple discovery: the resistance is a sham, and just another tool of Big Brother — in as much as this is a plot reversal, it is a reversal born solely out of new knowledge.
Poirot’s method of calling all the suspects together in a room to have the matter discovered is perhaps one of the reasons that anagnorisis has in recent years got a bad name. It makes especially easy television, and is currently in its nth recycle in the wonderfully light-touch Death in Paradise on BBC1, which features a Poirot-like gathering of suspects in each episode.
Where does all this leave us?
First, certainly discovery remains an important part of the writer’s plotting kit.
Second, split-discovery, or dramatic irony, can be a more powerful usage of it.
Third, with a wider range of tools for writing and dramatic effects, we don’t necessarily need to have the reversal and the discovery falling at the same moment. Shakespeare generally doesn’t, Jane Austen doesn’t, and William Golding doesn’t.
Fourth, implied discovery, which is used in many short stories, and in Pincher Martin as discussed above, can extend the story beyond the final page, or send the reader scurrying back to the beginning to read the whole thing again.
Finally, the epiphany or moment of clarity works just as well, if not better, if it is no surprise to the reader. Therefore, in using discovery, the writer should exploit to the full in both directions the difference between reader discovery and character discovery.
- Straight discovery — when the reader (or watcher) and the character discover at the same moment something which radically re-interprets what the story is about
- Dramatic irony — when the reader learns something important much earlier than the character does
- Withheld discovery — when the reader is kept in the dark about something the character(s) already know
- Moment of clarity or epiphany — when the character realises something about themselves which the reader has already observed, though possibly without consciously noticing it
- Forgotten discovery — referred to elsewhere on this site as the ‘logic bomb’ — where something is revealed, or discovered, early on, but this is then carefully downplayed by the author, only to be brought back as the turning point at the crucial moment.
So anagnorisis — you have the basics, now go and discover how to use it yourself.