This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

When you’re writing film and TV, you have all the power at your fingertips. You’re in control of when characters get what information, and how the audience reacts to it.

Especially when that discovery is about themselves.

The power of revelation and self-discovery plays a pivotal role in engaging audiences and immersing them in the narrative. One of the most profound and impactful storytelling elements is anagnorisis, a term derived from ancient Greek theater, where we get most of our storytelling principles of today.

This article delves into the definition of anagnorisis, and its significance in storytelling. We even provide some notable examples from film and TV that beautifully demonstrate its impact.

Let’s get started.

Anagnorisis Definition

A black and white still from 'Citizen Kane'

Anagnorisis (pronounced “an-ag-NO-rih-sis”) is a literary device that revolves around a character’s sudden realization or recognition of a crucial truth or fact. It marks the moment when the character gains a deeper understanding of their own identity, the world around them, or the unfolding events.

This revelation is often life-altering and has the power to transform the character’s motivations, beliefs, and actions dramatically.

It is a huge beat in your screenplay.

Anagnorisis as a Concept

A stone carving of Aristotle

The concept of anagnorisis was first introduced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his seminal work on dramatic theory, Poetics.

Yes, this is a big world you will probably never hear about inside Hollywood, but learning this stuff always helps me find the right moments I need to show character arcs in my writing.

Aristotle identified it as an essential element of a well-structured tragedy, alongside other key components like the plot, character, and catharsis. Anagnorisis often occurs near the climax of the narrative and leads to a heightened sense of emotional catharsis for both the characters and the audience.

It’s a big reveal for the character and usually for the audience as well.

The Significance of Anagnorisis in Storytelling

Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, standing at his desk in 'Mad Men'

Anagnorisis serves as a powerful tool for storytellers, as it adds depth and complexity to characters, strengthens the emotional impact of the narrative, and explores universal themes of self-discovery and human nature.

What happens when the plot makes a person examine who they are? What will they learn about themselves, and how will that allow the audience to connect to the story?

When well-executed, anagnorisis can lead to a profound emotional connection between the audience and the characters, allowing viewers to empathize and relate to their struggles and revelations.

We watch films and TV because we want a connection. We follow characters because we see something interesting in them, we want to know why they are the way they are.

Dramatic Irony vs. Anagnorisis

Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray, staring at Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, in 'Lost in Translation'

Anagnorisis can be confused with the concept of dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience or reader knows something that the characters in the story are unaware of. This creates a sense of tension and anticipation as the audience watches events unfold with a deeper understanding of the situation than the characters possess.

But that’s not what happens in anagnorisis.

The moment of anagnorisis resolves this tension that might be caused by the irony, bringing the audience and the character onto the same page and intensifying the emotional impact of the revelation.

Examples of Anagnorisis in Film and TV

Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, pointing a gun in 'Breaking Bad'

Sometimes the best way to inspire your own writing is to view the way others did things. We see anagnorisis utilized through many different angles, realizations, plot twists, and many other ideas.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Maybe the most famous of all examples is The Sixth Sense (1999). In this directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the character Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) experiences anagnorisis when he realizes that he has been dead the entire time.

This moment echoed throughout Hollywood and is one of the best-written twists and realizations of all time. It completely transforms the way he perceives the world and his purpose in helping a young boy who claims to see dead people.

Another great example comes from the TV series Breaking Bad (2008-2013). In it, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) undergoes a gradual, multi-season transformation from a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to a ruthless drug lord. His anagnorisis occurs when he acknowledges that his descent into criminality is not solely driven by the desire to provide for his family, but also fueled by his own ego and thirst for power and money.

This moment is hard to pinpoint, but it’s what makes it such a powerful TV show. We’re seeing he deconstruction of a person over a long period of time.

Finally, let’s take a peak at the movie Lost in Translation (2003).

It was directed by Sofia Coppola and explores the emotional connection between two strangers, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who meet in Tokyo. Their anagnorisis occurs when they both realize the significance and impact of their brief encounter, leading to a bittersweet understanding of their individual lives.

Summing Up Anagnorisis in Film and Television

Anagnorisis, as a storytelling device, plays a fundamental role in shaping the arcs of characters and propelling the plot forward in film and television. It’s one you should be using in your own writing.

By infusing narratives with moments of profound self-discovery and recognition, writers and directors can create emotionally resonant experiences that captivate and leave a lasting impression on audiences.

Now it’s time to take what you’ve learned here and put it into your own work.