Hidden Meanings

Monday, September 7, 2015

Our newspaper incudes the “Crankshaft” comic strip by Batiuk & Ayers. I particularly enjoyed the Sunday one from August 23. One character approaches another and says, “It looks like you’ve started a new book, Lillian.” But Lillian has decided not to finish it. In the last frame, she explains why: “The author was bankrupt of ideas by chapter eleven.” My first reaction was that it was cute, and that was good enough.

But then I looked again. I don’t know why it took the lawyer in me several seconds to get the deeper meaning, but it did. Then I realized how clever the strip was.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, Chapter Eleven is shorthand for a particular type of bankruptcy proceeding. So when Lillian said the author was bankrupt by chapter eleven, the phrase had a heightened meaning for those who understood it.

Technically, that’s not a hidden meaning but simply a heightened one that not everyone gets. Still, in some ways it is like the picture at the head of this post. If you look carefully, you will find a bird in the branches. But it’s an interesting picture even if you don’t.

That’s how hidden or double meanings should work in fiction. Illusions that some readers will miss work if—and only if—the surface story is interesting without them. But if my enjoyment depends on specialized knowledge or Mensa-level thinking, I don’t want to read it. I recently read a book like that, and it was so forgettable that I don’t even remember its name.

Disney handles this issue well. Its animated films are filled with adult humor that children won’t get. But that doesn’t matter, because the story is also told at a child’s level.

If you want to infuse your manuscripts with allusions that show how smart you are, make sure they work on an everyday level as well.

Because it isn’t very smart to write a story nobody wants to read.

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