Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Easter eggs




Many writers include Easter eggs – in-jokes or subtle references – in their work. This can be a lot of fun, both for the writers and for readers who recognize the messages or humor, though there are a few caveats.

Like symbolism, Easter eggs have to function on two levels. They have to make sense and fit into the story whether or not the reader gets the reference. As a result, they can’t be used to convey vital information, nor can they be clues that the reader needs to figure out in order for the plot to proceed. They’re entertaining and decorative instead, like flourishes in calligraphy.

A good example of this occurs in China Mieville’s The Scar, where the flagship of the New Crobuzonian fleet is named Morning Walker. That’s a reference to C. S. Lewis’s Dawn Treader, but it’s subtle. If a reader catches the parallel, it provides a little more enjoyment; if not, the name of the flagship still sounds exotic and interesting.

An Easter egg can’t be too out-of-place. A reference to the Exxon Valdez rather than to a sailing ship in another fantasy novel might have been too jarring for readers who recognized it, unless the story was aiming for anachronistic humor.

And the Easter egg cannot be pointed out to readers. I recently read part of a manuscript submitted for critique and found a foreword where the writer explained what certain terms meant. Those terms were well-chosen, but deconstructing them spoiled the effect.

Not only are few readers going to plow through a foreword if they’re not already interested in the story, calling attention to one’s own imagination never works. If the readers don’t get it, the readers don’t get it. Better to allow them to enjoy the story, even if they do so on a less profound level than the writer views it, than to make them feel that the writer is reaching into the story to help them grasp nuances of hidden meaning.

The last Easter egg I used was in a land where morality and purity were highly prized… on the surface, at least. So the land had seven major roadways, which were given the Latin names for the seven deadly sins – Via Avaritia, Via Invidia and so on. If any readers are intrigued, they’ll look the names up; if they aren’t, they can still enjoy the story. Unlike real eggs, Easter eggs in stories will always be there, whether they’re found or not.

10 comments:

Abby said...

Thanks for pointing this out! I read a book where one of the bad ladies was named Invidia. Then I saw your post, and now I know what it means. Neat!

ralfast said...

The island of LaPuta in Gulliver's Travels, which means The Whore (in Italian/Spanish).

gypsyscarlett said...

I'm not sure if they count as Easter eggs or not, but it's fun to pay attention to what books the characters on the show, "Lost", are reading. They're always symbolic in some way.

garridon said...

I think I would have defined them differently, but then I'm more familiar with them as "inside jokes" from TV shows. They date back at least to the 1960s and were often a nod to the actors in the show. In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, one of the actors stayed in the Hotel Dandelo. If you were familiar with David Hedison's career, you would be delighted to catch the reference to the name of the cat from The Fly. Otherwise, the name didn't mean anything.

In Buck Rogers, we hear over the speakers "Captain Christopher Pike" being paged. That, of course, meant something to every science fiction fan who had also seen Star Trek.

On Stargate, Samatha says she will "McGyver" something. The star of the show was Richard Dean Anderson who played McGyver.

And more recently, someone on NCIS wondered what Ducky (David McCallum) had looked like when he was younger. Gibbs popped off: "Illya Kuriakan." McCallum was on The Man From UNCLE, and that was the name of his character.

Marian said...

Hi Abby,

Glad to help. :) Invidia is also the name of a domain in the Ravenloft RPG. The name sounded intriguing so I looked it up to see what it meant.

Marian said...

Hey ralfast,

I'm a bit apprehensive about asking, but was there a reason why that island was called "The Whore"?

Hazardgal said...

It adds to the "snarkiness". Great read!

ralfast said...

I believe it is an oblique reference to Britain (could be wrong, I read the text back in college). Also because of the attitudes of its inhabitants. People tend to ignore that Swift was really into scatological references. He went into great detail to show the frailty and uncleanness of Man by showing Gulliver defecating all over the place (well behind bushes, mostly, but boy was he explicit about it).

Loren said...

Some computer games have them also. Like the Forest Giant in the first Myth game that's named Morningwood.

ralfast said...

Well Loren, Easter Eggs come directly from the computer industry, all the way back when total program size was measure in kilobytes. Many games have them. A running gag in many computer RPGs is that they have a literal Easter egg which can be just pretty or pretty awesome, often combine with the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch because you see both looks like eggs and....

;-)