When I attended the writers' retreat with Wild author Cheryl Strayed a few weeks ago, I learned a lot about writing and storytelling. I learned about leaning into subjectivity and the power of objects.

I was also struck by two points Cheryl made about revelations.

Why Your Character Needs a Revelation

What is a Revelation?

A revelation is when you realize something about yourself, someone else, or the world.

In a story, revelations shape the emotional plot, it’s emotional or psychological trajectory, and throughout a novel or memoir, a character has a series of revelations that shape her moral journey.

The climax is often the biggest revelation of all.

How do you use revelations effectively in your story, though? According to Cheryl, there are two rules you need to follow:

1. Revelations Must Be Earned

I don’t think it’s much a spoiler to say that in Wild, one of her revelations was that, despite all that she had been through, she was going to be OK.

But the memoir wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if Cheryl just woke up one day and it came to her. No, she had to earn that revelation.

It wasn’t until she spent three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail that Cheryl finally understood that her life wouldn’t be horrible forever. She hiked alone—pushing herself to her physical and mental limits—and survived. Only then, did she realize she would be OK.

Note that Cheryl said this is an issue that comes up in a lot of prologues—often prologues give the reader a revelation that he hasn’t earned yet.

Being a part of the moral, mental, or emotional journey that leads to a revelation is a key part of the experience of reading a book. It shouldn’t be passed over.

2. Revelations Can Be Wrong

One of the most interesting things Cheryl says about revelations is that sometimes they are profoundly incorrect.

The best example of this is when the person you love turns out to not be the one. At some point in your life, you “realized” that you would be with this person forever, that she was perfect for you, that you found the one. But she wasn’t the one. That was a profound revelation that was also incorrect.

Cheryl also quoted Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” where the author shows the perspective of a little boy. The boy asks his father about death. After his father answers, “the boy knew that he would never die.”

This is another revelation that is profoundly incorrect, and yet it is beautiful literature because it shows the innocence of a child’s perspective.

Have you ever written about a revelation? What did you or your character realize? Share in the comments!


I encourage you to take fifteen minutes to write about any of these prompts and share in the comments section:

  1. Write about a time when you realized something and your life was changed.
  2. Write about a revelation that took a long time to get to.
  3. Write about a time when you knew you couldn’t do something.

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

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