Friday, March 12, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight

(I was going to put clues all through today's post encouraging you aspiring novelists to enter our "Audience with an Agent" contest. But I need to tell you plainly: In today's precarious publishing atmosphere, if you can enter a contest where concerned cheerleader-type authors (that's us at NovelMatters) will vet your winning novel before a top agent -- you should just do it!)

As Katy’s stimulating post on Wednesday demonstrated, people love the challenge of a mystery, and they like being led down all manner of misleading paths if they’re rewarded with a good surprise at the end.

We also have a fascination with clues and messages hidden in media. Remember all the uproar over the rumor that “Paul is dead,” supposedly a hidden message in a Beatles album—if you played it backwards? And just this week Carly Simon revealed (also via a “backwards” recording) the identity of the man about whom she sang, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”

Other creative people have done this too: Al Hirshfield hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in his drawings, Alfred Hitchcock inserted cameos of himself in his films, and computer programmers put in “easter egg” messages in games and other programs. Fans find great delight in locating such elements.

Novelists and other writers include hidden elements in their writing. James Joyce paralleled the Odyssey in one of his books. And the Bible uses structural techniques that often go over the heads of modern readers, such as the acrostics that are clearly marked with Hebrew letters in Psalm 119 and not marked in eight other psalms (9-10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; and 145.)

Recently I used an ancient technique known as chiasmus in my WIP (chiasmus is a list that appears forward and then backward.) The point of any “hidden” element is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but brings delight or satisfaction when it’s discovered.

Have you discovered what you believe to be an intentionally “hidden” element or structure in a novel? Anybody out there brave enough to have written such a hidden aspect into your own work?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Wondering if this is interwoven with symbolism like the praying mantis in The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb?

M. Night Shyamalan does this in his movies too, I've heard...the cameos.

~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Yes, I believe that symbolism certainly counts as a literary technique. I haven't read Lamb's book, but if he uses it in a way that the novel is coherent even if you don't know the mantis is symbolic, that's what I'm talking about.

A hidden technique in art would be so much a part of the overall picture that you'd have to look for it -- just like Hitchcock's appearances in crowd scenes in his films or chiasm in the Bible.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I don't know if I'm smart enough to do that. :0) But I love it when I find things like that. That's one reason I love the show LOST--all the hidden things are great!

Bonnie Grove said...

I hid several goodies in Talking to the Dead. Some were thematic, such as the waiting/reception room (Kate Davis finds herself in all sorts of waiting rooms throughout the novel. There is a specific element within each of them that symbolizes her spiritual journey).

Others are explorations of psychological phenomenon. Kate experiences her emotions through her body. There is a pattern to her emotions expressions.

Are these things important to the story? Nope. Do I expect most readers to find them? Nope. I did it for the pure enjoyment and, I think, it added some depth of meaning that readers enjoyed. I hope. Maybe not. :)

Kathleen Popa said...

In all of Chris Van Allsburg's books for children, his illustrations feature a Bull Terrier named Fritz. Fritz plays a starring role on Van Allsburg's very cool interactive website:

I understand some authors allow characters from previous, un-sequeled works to make cameo appearances in their novels. What a great idea.

Anonymous said...

Katy, Jamie Langston Turner does that in her novels. All stand-alone, but the starring character from a previous novel plays a bit part in a subsequent novel. I love that about her books.

Latayne, I'm learning so much from you. It's like the layers of an onion peeled back, one by one. I've barely got the skin off in my understanding of this and other topics you write about, but you give us so much to think about ... to unravel. Love it.

Laura Pauling said...

I've never done it, but it sounds like a fun challenge.

carla stewart said...

I love this technique (ploy) in writing. Lisa Samson brings characters from other novels onstage in secondary roles sometimes. It makes me feel smart to have read the "other" books.

In my debut novel, I gave a nod to the town where I went to school by giving a character the last name of the town. She's mentioned only once, but people from the area will get it (I hope). I also gave a mention to the town where my dad lives in my just-finished novel.

Fun topic.

Latayne C Scott said...

Cool! You all (Wendy, Kathleen, Sharon, Carla) brought up authors I'd never thought of. And Bonnie, the waiting rooms went right over my head (hmm.. processing that mental image if literal) in Talking to the Dead. Carla -- what a neat way to "remember" people.

Thanks, Sharon. I have all kinds of apparently useless information rattling around in my head all the time. It's a wonder I get anything done in the real world.

Kristin and Laura -- you'd be surprised how much fun this could be. Once you see it in the writings of others it becomes a challenge for yourself!

Samantha Bennett said...

I'm a huge Elizabeth Peters fan. She's most famous for her Amelia Peabody series. In a completely different series, she leads her characters into Amelia's old home. Only readers of her past novels could initially make the connection. I loved it! It was such an ah-ha moment for me!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Samantha, I love Elizabeth Peters, too! In which series does she show Amelia's home?

Noel Green said...

James Joyce obviously had a blast with language (it was his toy!)and 'hiding' things in the his works. In _Ulysses_, for example, there have been claims that any reader can find his/her first, middle or last name.

_Finnegan's Wake_ also has some fun. The book ends mid-sentence . . . and begins with the rest of that sentence, completing the loop.

Kathleen Popa said...

Hmmm... S'pose I could find my last name in Ulysses?

Anonymous said...

Oh! oh! oh! You all have to see this video that's written in a palindrome!