If you had something you needed to confess, how would you do it?
Back in August, that's the question we made WEbook ponder over for our Monthly Challenge.
Our stand out winner for the August Challenge was Ernest_Lee with his entry The Truth - so a huge congratulations goes to Ernest_Lee, and also of course to our runners up:
- I'm Not Crazy by JedAnderson -
- Space Robot Five by Sprayoncrayon -
- A Paranoid Pair by Josafat -
- Chilli Cheese Dogs by FinneanNilsen -
- Let Me Count the Ways by lightningpastry -
If the confession is something as innocuous as your character eating the last piece of pie, then, well, unless it's poisoned pie, that's pretty boring - right? It's unlikely that there will be much believable propulsion off the back of this action. What you want is for your character to eat, say, all the pies that were intended for the International Pie-Eating Contest: 2015, and now there's a whole lot of really hungry, pie-less contestants after your character's sugary blood. Your character's motivation? An insatiable love of pies that consumes their every waking moment. It's a problem that needs a solution.
If you'd like to find out more about how you can use confessions, hidden information, secrets and inner turmoil in your writing, there are - of course - plenty of resources out there on the interweb. We've collated our favorite few here for you to have a read through, enjoy!
WEbook: Hi Ernest_Lee, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, here's our first question:
The protagonist’s confession, framed within your convincing and well-structured story, asks simply one question of the reader: What would you do? Drawing on the most basic natural instinct, self-preservation, the reader must weigh up the facts they have been given, and pass judgement on your protagonist’s treatment of the situation.
When writing this story, did you sympathise with Billy’s plight, or are his actions unforgivable no matter the circumstances?
Ernest_Lee: I certainly sympathised with his plight, but before passing judgement, one must remember that my protagonist, at eighteen was little more than an inexperienced kid. In mitigation of his actions, it will be noted that the enormity of his crime hit him immediately after the event and he did try his utmost to rectify it.
It is easy to judge somebody’s actions from the comfort of one’s armchair, but most of us are never placed in that kind of life or death situation and, consequently, we do not know how we would react in similar circumstances. In extremis, people are unpredictable.
For these reasons, I think his actions at the time are probably forgivable. Less forgivable, in my opinion, are his later actions where he spends a lifetime “dining out” on his supposed heroic exploits.
WB: By placing the protagonist as the almost-victim of a common enemy – the Nazis - the reader is already sympathetic towards him, and naturally champions his fight for survival. When it becomes apparent that only one character, or none, can survive, the reader quite easily forgives Billy’s intent and subsequent actions.
How did you approach the structuring of your story to elicit reader-empathy for Billy, despite his murderous intent and action?
EL: I can’t say there was any overt intention to elicit empathy. I just reported the story from Billy’s point of view and hoped that the reader would understand. I placed myself in Billy’s shoes, and tried to tell his story honestly, but I realised that, even while confessing, he would try to cast himself in as positive a light as possible under the circumstances.
It will also be noted that the murder occurred on day 50, Billy was picked up on day 54 (the same day that that their rations were due to expire) and Fowler had been assuring him that their voyage would shortly be at an end. However, at that point, Billy had lost confidence in Fowler and didn’t believe him. The point here is that both of them would have survived if only Billy had held his nerve.
WB: When re-reading your submission, the line ‘“You might have just saved our lives, young fellow” he [Fowler] said.’, takes on an ironic tone, whereas on the first reading it instills hope in the reader.
When including this line, were you actively trying to throw the reader off the scent of Billy’s later actions, or was it an attempt to further bolster the reader’s affection for Billy by casting him as the real saviour of the situation?
EL: First and foremost, it was intended as irony. However, a perceptive reader might notice that knowledge of the westerly progress of the boat was irrelevant as to whether, or not, they reached their destination. When sailing due West, it is knowledge of latitude that is all-important, and Fowler had that covered. Billy's contribution was therefore more of a convenience, than a necessity.
My intention throughout was to portray Billy as a mainly passive character who does very little to ensure their survival. Offering up his wristwatch towards the common good was Billy’s only action that promoted that end – and it will be noted that Fowler prompted him to do so. If anything, the intent of this line was to portray Fowler in a positive light rather than Billy.
WB: At the end of the story, Billy decides that he will not mention Fowler at all. Yet, the lie he is telling himself is just as big. Not only is he outwardly denying Fowler’s presence in the boat, but he is also inwardly denying his culpability in Fowler’s murder by pretending it never happened.
This is undoubtedly a cowardly decision, but still forgivable given the potential consequences. At the end of the story, when Billy finally confesses, he does so selfishly, safe in the knowledge that he can never be judged by his friends and family.
Is Billy a coward, or do you think his actions are justified in the sense that they were necessary for him to survive?
EL: I think that once the lie had been told, it had to be perpetuated. Also, for some people, “the truth” is a malleable concept and to them it is whatever people can be persuaded to believe.
Delaying his confession until all his family and friends were dead could be interpreted as cowardly in the manner you have stated. However, I suspect that Billy thought of it as a noble gesture. His family and friends had spent years basking in his reflected glory and he was sparing them the shame of being associated with his inevitable disgrace once the truth was out.
WB: The story is about murder, and the confession to one. Yet the word ‘murder’ is never used in the story.
Was this a conscious decision?
EL: I can’t say it was a conscious decision at the outset. After the first draft of the story, I noticed that “murder” hadn’t been mentioned, and it struck me as a neat idea to keep it that way because Billy, even in confession, was attempting to cast himself in the best possible light because, as I mentioned above, truth can be a malleable concept.
WB: Who are your favourite writers on WEbook, and why?
EL: I admire many writers on the site but, to my mind, there are two who stand out as quite brilliant: A.U. Latif (Aftab) and Devi Shorashi (The Brat). Both are superlative storytellers and marvellous technical writers, yet their styles appear to me to be diametrically opposed.
Aftab writes beautiful prose that borders on poetry at times and he is a sheer joy to read. He has developed a style and narrative voice that is instantly recognisable.
The Brat, on the other hand, adopts a voice to suit her story. I’ve never known her use the same narrative voice twice. I think of her as “the woman of a thousand voices”. She also has a wicked sense of humour, and this permeates much of her work.
WB: What are your four favourite books or authors, and why?
EL: Probably my all time favourite writer is Joseph Conrad – to the uninitiated modern reader, he can be very daunting. In a typical book, nothing much happens for perhaps the first 75% of the story, but what Conrad is doing is meticulously setting the scene and developing the characters. The reader becomes so immersed that the action, when it occurs, is explosive. His brilliant “Victory” is a very good example of this. That novel also features two of literature’s most notable villains: the opportunist desperadoes "Plain" Mr Jones and his sidekick the psychopathic Martin Ricardo – truly terrifying characters.
In many of Conrad’s writings he uses an innovative narrative technique where the narrator (usually the worldly wise and cynical retired ship’s captain, Charlie Marlow) tells the story to one or more people in a social setting. Using this technique, the story can be paused while his audience discuss details, character motivations, etc, thereby adding further depth and understanding to the tale.
The second is “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. A superb book that achieves the almost impossible feat of portraying a distasteful and awful subject (paedophilia) through the eyes of a monstrous and odious character, yet somehow manages to be warm and funny. It also features some of the most beautifully written prose that I’ve ever encountered.
Another favourite writer is John Steinbeck. He had the enviable knack of writing very deeply but with an extremely light touch. All of his writings are accessible and very easily read. In my opinion, his masterpiece is “The Grapes of Wrath”- a marvellous book that is both a story of the triumph of the human spirit in adversity and a Marxian critique of capitalism.
Patrick O’Brian’s series of 20 novels detailing the trials and tribulations of Captain Jack Aubrey RN and his friend Stephen Maturin over the course of a period between 1800 and 1820 is peerless and these books represent some of the finest historical fiction ever written.
I’ve always preferred character driven stories, and nobody could write characters like O’Brian. His characters are deep, well rounded and believable - so much so that I tend to think of them as close personal friends. As well as being products of their time, these characters hold the beliefs and prejudices of their contemporaries and they are never invested with modern knowledge or insights.
WB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Ernest_Lee! We look forwards to reading many more of your submissions over the months to come.
To read Ernest_Lee's submission in full, check out the August Challenge Project page!