Using ‘Easter Eggs’ When Writing Books

10 Jun

There’s been a subject which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and that’s Easter Eggs. Now you might think this is strange, given that it’s June, but it’s not that kind of Easter Egg that’s been on my mind. Instead, it’s literary Easter Eggs. This type of Easter Egg is an extra layer to an object, action, piece of dialogue or character in a story which may be hidden to many readers, but which provides those in the know with a little extra kick of pleasure because they’ve got the intended reference. They also provide additional layers to a story which readers might miss the first time they read a book, giving them something else to discover if they return to a story for a second helping.

Some Easter Eggs can have a relatively broad appeal, and so be ones which you’d expect most readers to get. Others may be incredibly subtle and may only be understood by a very small number of readers, often those who know the author personally. Similarly, some Easter Eggs may be self-referential, that is referring to other parts of a book, or books in a series, while others may be external references that link to specific aspects of a genre, or indeed to popular culture in general.

The trouble with literary Easter Eggs is that, just like the real thing, they can be addictive, and once a writer starts using them, there can be a temptation to go wild and include way too many. However, Easter Eggs only work if they are few and far between. Similarly, Easter Eggs have to be carefully woven into the story so that they’re neither too obvious nor provide a stumbling block for readers who don’t get the additional hidden meaning.

As with anything, an example with worth a thousand words, so I’ll use my book For Those In Peril On The Sea to illustrate exactly what I’m meaning by Easter Eggs. This is a particularly useful case study because it contains three intentional Easter Eggs (one of which is very subtle), and one example which some might consider an Easter Egg, but which was quite accidental. Such accidental references are remarkably common in literature and can cause readers to think that writers are much better at creating hidden references than they actually are!

For those not familiar with it, For Those In Peril On The Sea is a tale of survival in post-apocalyptic filled with zombie-like creatures referred to as The Infected. The first Easter Egg is the fact that the disease which creates the infected starts in Haiti. As any well-read student of zombie lore will know, zombies as we understand them in western culture originated in Haitian folk history, so starting the disease outbreak in Haiti (and indeed calling the disease the Haitian Rabies Virus) is a nod to this aspect of zombie tradition.

The second Easter Egg is another nod towards the wider zombie genre, and specifically the films of George R. Romero, who is recognised as the founder of the modern zombie movie. This Easter Egg is hidden with a piece of dialogue where one character tells another:

‘Given what’s happened, I’d much rather be on a boat at sea than holed up on land, cowering in my house, or in some suburban shopping mall, waiting for the food to run out or the infected to break down the doors.’

For those in the know (and I suspect most people will have got this), this refers back to the film Dawn Of The Dead, where the characters are holed up in a shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse.

The final intentional Easter Egg is one which I’d expect very few people to get. Despite the fact that the entire book is set on and around boats, none of the boats are refered to by name, and instead are referred to in terms of who each boat belongs to. This is except one, which, it is mentioned in passing, is called Gone With The Wind. For pretty much every reader, this will seem inconsequential, but those who knew me when I was out in Abaco in the northern Bahamas (where much of the second half of the book is set) will know that this the name of the sailboat I lived on a few years in the late 1990s.

What about the accidental Easter Egg? Well, one of the characters in For Those In Peril On The Sea is called CJ, and some might think that this is an homage to the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, where one of the lead characters is also called CJ. However, this was purely accidental, and it was something I only realised well after the book was published! Rather, this character’s name started out as Camilla, but this didn’t really fit with the flow of the book, so it was shortened to her initials, meaning Camilla Jameison became CJ purely because it didn’t disrupt the flow of the book as much.

So, these are literary Easter Eggs. Would I recommend other authors to use them in their writing? I think the answer here is yes, as readers generally love feeling that they’ve got some hidden meaning that others haven’t. However, you should only include them if you think you can do it well enough that it doesn’t ruin the story for those who don’t get it, and if you don’t do it too often within the same story. If you don’t think you can create a subtle enough Easter Egg, then don’t do it, and similarly, if you find you are starting to include one on every other page, then you need to rein yourself in.

If you want to try your hand at using Easter Eggs, and you’re worried that they won’t work, then get someone to read it over, but don’t tell them why. This will allow you to see if they spot your intended Easter Eggs, and whether they think it disrupts the flow of the story if they don’t. This way you can ensure that any Easter Eggs you create will be proper surprises for the well-informed reader and not simply MacGuffins that ruin things for everyone!



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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