Sunday, March 24, 2013

Message in a Bottle

When I started writing years ago, I used to think stories contained hidden messages like notes that a writer had placed in a bottle and sent across the sea.

That kind of thinking assumes that a story is like a cryptogram or treasure map, and that my job as a writer is to plant the clues so a reader can discover the hidden message.

But now, after years of writing (and reading), I wonder if a story has to contain clues to a hidden message.  It’s hard enough as a writer, after all, to clarify what it is that you’re trying to say, isn’t it?

So, why is it necessary to conceal what you want to say in the form of a hidden message?

Of course, lots of writers over the centuries have crafted stories to reveal a special message. Most recently, J.K. Rowling sent her readers hidden messages in the Harry Potter series. Clues were concealed with care, the mystery of a scene was enhanced, readers were charmed… and children, like my daughter, spent hours searching through the books for answers to puzzles that the plot and characters presented on every page.

Symbolism--a scarlet A, for instance, the toll of a bell, a great white whale, a secret door--can often lead a reader into a deeper understanding of a story. But most writers (those who I know, at any rate) are content to let the meaning of a story evolve out of the writing itself. As the process unfolds, bit by bit, the story’s meaning becomes clearer to the writer, and, ultimately, to the reader.

What do you think? Does a story's meaning rely on hidden messages and on clues that a writer might leave like breadcrumbs in a forest to help readers find their way?

Do you slip hidden clues and messages into your stories as if sending your reader notes in a bottle?

Or do you prefer to let the meaning of your story emerge out of the natural process of writing, discovering the meaning of a story in the words as they appear on the page?

Let us know when you get a chance.

For more info on finding meaning in stories, visit:


Dianne Ochiltree said...

Thank you, Bruce, for another thought-provoking post! Poetry, memoir and fiction are definitely places in which a writer lovingly places hidden messages. It's important to engage the reader by not spelling things out of course. But more important is to craft an interactive experience for the reader. The reader needs to fill in the blanks in his or her own way, engaging imagination and intuition. In this way, a single narrative from a writer becomes a unique vision for each and every reader.

Bruce Black said...

Dianne, your suggestion that a writer "lovingly" place the hidden messages is crucial, I think, to a story's success. There's a huge difference to the reader, I think, if a message feels imposed on a story rather than having evolved organically out of the story itself.