An extremely brief outline of confession

Over on Twitter last Monday, folks were conversing about the concept of confession—in 140 characters or less, which is more demanding that it might seem at first glance. It got me thinking, as good conversations do, about confession. According to Merriam-Webster, confession means:

1: an act of confessing; especially : a disclosure of one’s sins in the sacrament of reconciliation b : a session for the confessing of sins <go to confession>
2: a statement of what is confessed: as a : a written or oral acknowledgment of guilt by a party accused of an offense b : a formal statement of religious beliefs : creed
3: an organized religious body having a common creed
In the vernacular, confession seems a bit more broad, including the telling of a deeply held secret, not necessarily one created by the teller. But that aside, it’s clear that confession is powerful—character- and plot-changing, something that can twist our expectations of the same—but it also, on further inspection, can be done in a manner of ways, some novel and some cliche. I think there are ten miles between those poles, too. So just to look at some aspects:
  • When is the confession made? Up in the prologue, to be semi-forgotten until later? Opening scene? Two-thirds through? Final page, leaving up primed for a next novel?
  • Who makes the confession? Maybe we’ll be reading about a flawed protagonist making up for his/her misdeeds. Maybe we’ve seen into the mind of the antagonist, giving us a more complex picture of that character’s relationship to the protagonist. Maybe the confessor is a side character with a large measure of effect on everyone else.
  • Is the confession made voluntarily? Are we watching someone with a gun to his head, or a character so distressed they can’t hold it in any longer? Does the confessor think this confession will do good for the telling of it? Or is it made to harm someone?
  • Is the confession whole? There’s a difference between saying, “Samira is not your mother,” and saying, “I’m your mother.” How would the state of completeness generate further conflict or draw things to a crisis?
  • Where does the confession take place? Courtroom? Bedroom? Out in the woods over the grave one is digging for their victim?
  • Who hears this confession? People who will use it for good? For ill? Who will retell it accurately? People who are implicated by the confession? People who already knew the story before it was confessed? People who are not allowed to tell anyone else about the confession?
Confession can sure be hokey. Or absurd and unbelievable. It seems to me that confession is a pretty good barometer of how well one’s plot is holding together; if the confession seems funny when it’s serious, or causes eyerolls for the reader, it’s a bridge to far, and that means the plot has gone too far on its own out of solid story territory.
We should be engrossed in a confession, even if it only leads us to another big moment, but if that’s the case, this can’t be the pivotal moment. We writers all want to think that we can write in this twist and that, and that’s fine, but there can only be one big pivot, because that’s where the characters make their important shifts, if we believe in the “characters must change from the beginning to the end of a story” concept.
I believe in that concept.
Confession is not merely a revelation, and not merely the opening of a new angle to the story the writer has already shared with readers; it must shift something important within the bounds of the story’s world. Protagonist, possible outcomes, direction of the plot, something. It must be concurrent with the idea of that character who is telling it—drama divas usually deliver it with flair: “You can’t HANDLE the truth!” Quieter characters may tell it so softly it goes unnoticed for hundreds of pages. Or it could be something confessed only to the readers by a character not otherwise in the book or the Unseen Narrator.
What’s lovely and fascinating to me is that there are as many kinds of confession as there are characters. And I love it when they’re as well nuanced.
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2 Comments on “An extremely brief outline of confession”

  1. August 25, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Great round-up of confession theory as it relates to literature. Hope you can join the discussion again today and on Friday. It might help people understand how a Twitter discussion works if you pointed to #litchat as the conversational source on Twitter.

  2. evmaroon
    August 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Yes folks, you should check out the #litchat tag on Twitter! Conversations M, F, W at 4PM ET. Different topics, lots of incredible writers and book lovers.

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