Tuesday, May 26, 2009
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.