Peripeteia is a literary term that comes from Greek peripeteia ‘sudden change’ (peri- ‘around’ + the stem of piptein ‘to fall’).

Aristotle coined the term in his book about dramatic theory, Poetics, in circa 330 BCE.

In Poetics, he also defines a slew of other rhetorical literary devices – hubris, anagnorisis, dramatic irony, catharsis, and the rhetorical triangle – and defines peripeteia as “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.”

He termed it as one of the most powerful elements included in the complex plot of a tragedy.

Greek tragedies centre around the unfortunate heroes who eventually face their doom; the sudden and disastrous turn of events is known as ‘peripeteia’.

Peripeteia alters the course of the story and impacts the well-being of the main character.

In the context of tragedy, peripeteia works as the shift of the tragic protagonist’s fortune from good to bad.

And it appears in stories in the form of plot twists and key turning points that lead the story to its denouement (the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved).

4 examples of peripeteia:

  • Macbeth (play 1623): Peripeteia is the regicide, or killing of King Duncan. After this deed is done there is no going back. It causes an unexpected series of events to occur that are mostly beyond Macbeth’s control.
  • The Sixth Sense (film 1999): When Dr. Malcolm Crowe realizes he has been dead the entire time he has been treating Haley (the boy who can see ghosts), the plot gets a horrifying twist which transforms him from a breathing, living person to a ghost.
  • Million Dollar Baby (film 2004): The peripeteia occurs when, at a championship match, boxer Maggie Fitzgerald falls and breaks her neck. This peripeteia is sudden, tragic, and drastically changes the protagonist’s life, ending her career entirely. It results in the audience’s great sympathy and heartbreak.
  • The Matrix (film 1999): When Cypher comes out of the Matrix first, he proceeds to shoot operators Tank and Dozer, before revealing to Trinity that he’s made a deal with the machines to be put back into the Matrix in exchange for Morpheus. This is a devastating blow to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar as Cypher starts unplugging them one by one.

Anagnorisis vs. Peripeteia.

Anagnorisis is a literary device that’s closely related to peripeteia, though not the same.

Anagnorisis is a literary term for a moment of revelation or recognition in a story.

As a storyteller, you use anagnorisis in scenes where the main character finally comprehends the true nature of the situation or another character.

Peripeteia, by contrast, is about the new circumstances the main character finds themselves in.

Sometimes peripeteia directly follows anagnorisis when a character’s fortune changes because of their new knowledge – this is the case in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex when king Oedipus realizes the hidden truth: that he has killed his father and married his mother.

Peripeteia is a twist in which the main character realises that not one thing, but everything, their entire worldview, has been changed by a sudden revelation – that the fabric of reality itself has been altered in some way.

At the end of The Matrix, peripeteia occurs again (this time switching from bad to good) when Neo is shot by Agent Smith but, instead of dying, realises that he doesn’t have to die just because his mind dies in the Matrix.

This leads to him finally understanding that he can shape the world in the Matrix as he pleases and finally proves the prophecy true, which sets the story up for the next film.

When peripeteia unveils a betrayal, twist, or character depth, it sears the essential question in your mind: “What happens next?”

Peripeteia provokes strong reactions.

Genres that rely on the excitement of a twist – think horror, mystery, tragedy, thrillers – often incorporate peripeteia into the plotline to elicit strong emotions from the reader.

And it’s the perfect literary device to employ when you want to keep your readers glued to a story.

Peripeteia can pack a punch at the end of a film (such as in The Matrix, mentioned above), but it can also work really effectively in the beginning or middle of a story to push the MC into action and pull the reader along with them.

Peripeteia can prod a reluctant hero(ine) to pursue a goal.

A drastic reversal of fortune can spur your character to make a careless decision or sacrifice their own safety and well-being.

In Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt is ready to give up when his team of spies is murdered in a botched mission – but then he finds out his team was deliberately set up to root out a mole.

Peripeteia forces him to set his grief aside and chase his goal; going rogue to find out who the real mole is.

Peripeteia plays with perception.

To really understand the purpose of peripeteia, you need to turn your observation from the story itself to the reader.

Peripeteia is a good way to subvert the reader’s perception of a character or events.

It’s an effective tool for deepening the reader’s empathy and understanding of a character.

It also works to amplify the shock of betrayal and intensifies the threat of danger to your protagonist.

Peripeteia also changes the protagonist.

The dramatic shift of peripeteia can introduce a character to action they need to take, add complications to the journey or march them straight to the story’s climax with raised stakes (and anticipation!).

It’s ineffective storytelling if the protagonist doesn’t change with the sudden plot twist.

If we look at the ending of The Matrix (again), we see that Neo has spent the whole movie trying to comprehend the true nature of the Matrix.

At one pivotal moment earlier in the story, he fails to fully understand what it means when he’s told “there is no spoon”.

But in the end, when he understands that he can control his own mind inside the Matrix, he gains control of himself as well as access to the “source code” of the Matrix so he can shape it as he pleases.

This realisation (a) proves that he truly is The One and (b) profoundly alters his perception of both himself, the world of the Matrix, as well as how the machines operate within the Matrix.

This new expanded consciousness makes him a more powerful and dangerous adversary for the machines.

The hero must feel real.

Aristotle always stated that the tragic character must be so real that the audience can relate to them and their emotions.

Peripeteia is meant to cause pity and fear in the reader upon witnessing the tragic twist of fate which abruptly ruins the life of the protagonist.

Or surprise and elation at how things turned out in the end.

It’s that moment when the protagonist’s life changes forever.

Whether the change is from good to bad or bad to good, peripeteia should leave the reader gasping for breath.

Peripeteia is one of the most striking and necessary elements of a plot.

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