Embedding Code in A Story—The Writer’s Wily “Wink-Wink.”
edited: Tuesday, January 23, 2007
By Laurel Dewey
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2007
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So, when is a “cigar” really NOT a cigar?
Ever since Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code swept the publishing world, readers seem more receptive to uncovering hidden code in seemingly ordinary stories. Embedding veiled messages in works of fiction and art is nothing new. A lot of times it’s just another way for a writer to enjoy their own little “wink-wink” toward their more perceptive readers. That’s why I’ve been doing it for years in my writing. From character’s names to odd-sounding towns, I have peppered a lot of my work with obscure coded references that only a few readers have been able to break.
My first foray into this subterfuge started in college when I was putting together the playbill for a one-act play I directed. I’d had nothing but trouble dealing with the theatre department head as my play was not the featured production of their season and she didn’t see any point in giving my actors or myself any special treatment. Thus, I had to do everything on a bare bones shoestring.
And that included writing and printing the one page playbill to give to the audience.
By the time I sat down to write the playbill, I was fairly irritated. I was not only the director, but the set designer, costume designer, makeup artist, hair stylist…you get the picture. My playbill was going to look pretty weak, I thought, with only my name and the five actors on the page. Thus, I came up with my own little coded retribution for being hung out to dry: I created names for the non-existent crew. The set designer was Haven Agud Tyme (Having a good time), costumes were courtesy of Sowen Lasnite (Sewn Last Night), makeup was by May Belline (I think that one’s obvious) and hair was done simply by Coiff.
But you know what? Nobody got it. It went over their heads like an obscure reference to Plato at a cattle auction. That’s the problem with embedding code in your work. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of writers from giving it the ol’ college try.
The famed author E.M. Forster gave it a shot way back at the turn of the 20th century. Forster’s books were rediscovered by Hollywood in the 1980’s and enjoyed a major renaissance when Room With A View, Maurice, Howard’s End, Where Angels Fear to Tread and Passage to India were brought to the screen.
One of Forster’s lesser-known works, a short story titled “The Celestial Omnibus,” has always held a soft spot in my heart. Published in 1914, the story is a quietly subversive tale of Forster’s dislike of intellectuals who have lost touch with their heart and soul. This was big stuff in 1914 and a story that had to be told with some code thrown in for good measure. Forster wanted to make his point without alienating readers. Thus, he couched the story in fantasy: a children’s fantasy.
“The Celestial Omnibus” tells the story of a sensitive young boy growing up in a middle class English family. Like much of Forster’s work, the characters in Omnibus suffer from what the author beautifully labeled “an underdeveloped heart.” The boy in the story, however, is pure and has eyes to see and a heart that listens. His father and mother are obsessed with appearing intellectual, even though their ideas are shallow. To this end, they encourage the company of an elitist named Mr. Bons, hoping that by association with this seeming erudite blowhard, their status will rise in the community. Mr. Bons is the quintessential dinner guest who demands center stage as he spouts off about poetry, art, music and literature all the time while resting his teacup precariously on his overdeveloped belly.
The magical element in the story takes off when the boy discovers a mysterious horse-drawn omnibus (a covered carriage) that suddenly appears out of nowhere twice a day, at dawn and dusk, from the end of the alleyway across from his house. One day, the boy escapes the oppressive Mr. Bons and takes a ride on the omnibus. To his shock, the contraption lifts into the air and lands in The Heaven of the Immortals. There he meets scores of artistic and musical people who befriend him without ever revealing their names. When the boy returns home on the omnibus that night, his parents castigate him for wandering off when he could have been soaking in the intellect of Mr. Bons. What we don’t find out until the end of the story is that all the artistic masters that Mr. Bons superficially rambles on about turn out to be the cherished friends the boy met in heaven. Everyone from Dante to Keats reside in that magical place. The dramatic climax finds Bons heading off on the Celestial Omnibus with the boy, only to find that he is not welcomed into heaven due to his hardened heart. When he comes face-to-face with his heroes of art and literature he is cowed by them, finally revealing his true nature. He falls through a hole in a cloud and to his death. And the boy? He stays in heaven with his newfound friends of the Ages.
Yes, I suppose “The Celestial Omnibus” is a bit on the erudite side of popular mystical entertainment by today’s standards. But in 1914, this story was brave and ahead of its time. It was Forster’s slap in the face to intellectuals who refuse to think outside the box. And to make this point even more interesting, he gave his antagonist, Mr. Bons, a trick name that, spelled backwards, is SNOB.
Author Lewis Carroll took embedding code to new heights in his Alice in Wonderland series. Most students of Carroll agree that he masterfully created what seemed to be a children’s story but was really a tart assault on the British government. The Queen of Hearts was really Queen Victoria, for example. The Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit were caricatures of political buffoons. It was Carroll’s “wink-wink” to society. But to most people, the Alice series was just another fantasy-based children’s book.
There are more modern examples out there, from Disney’s Fantasia to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. You see a pattern here? Through what looks like “fantasy” or science fiction on the surface, may hide explosive messages that the writer possibly didn’t feel he or she could deliver without incurring the wrath of the public.
Or, it can be just for fun. In one of my short story collections, I named a character Mr. Mepps. He was a man who liked to lure people into his nefarious net. He also liked to fish. Mepps? It’s the brand name for the #1 fishing lure.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Nobody got it…
Reprinted from Laurel Dewey's "8th Sense Blog" found at www.laureldewey.com