Sunday, 22 May 2011

'Elber Get The Terrors'

When J and me were conducting our long-distance relationship, we used to read to each other over the phone. That summer, everyone was reading 'The Da Vinci Code' so I bought it and over a period of three or four nights we slogged through the opening 100 pages or so – those endless descriptions of the Louvre’s parquet flooring and such.
We never got beyond that point; reading a badly-written book aloud can be a pretty punishing experience. But I still remember the exact point at which we stopped – and why.
A character called Sauniere, dying in great pain, writes a message on the floor in his own blood. It’s this. 13-3-3-21-1-1-8-5
O, Draconian Devil! Oh, Lame Saint!”
Now; there’s a long and rich tradition of the cryptic message in literature – from Jane Eyre hearing Rochester’s spirit-voice onwards. We could generate a pretty good list together here now; let me pitch in with Conan Doyle’s 'The Sign of Four' in which a woman receives a mysterious package containing a large and lustrous pearl on the same day every year, or Robert Goddard’s 'Closed Circle', in which a character is terrorised by a drawing of two concentric circles that arrives in the post. Stevenson’s ‘black spot' in 'Treasure Island' is worth a mention – as is Pullman’s 'The Ruby in the Smoke', in which a character has a heart attack at the opaque mention of something called the ‘seven blessings’.
These cryptic messages are often closely followed by the death or disappearance of the messenger, so as to leave the protagonist unable to enquire any further. Colin Bateman’s thriller 'Divorcing Jack' springs to mind here, since the title of the novel is a reference to the misheard whisper of a dying character; “Divorce Jack” is in fact an attempt to speak the name of a Czech composer.
But there’s a problem with the use of cryptic messages that as writers we need to pay heed to; a balance that needs to be struck between the need we have as writers to introduce a plot device via a message, and the manner in which the characters are made to do it.
And that’s why I put down 'The Da Vinci Code' at that point, never to pick it up again. Dan Brown’s need for a cryptic message to drive his plot forward grossly outweighs his character’s motivations and actions. Let’s face it - no dying man would spend any amount of time carefully constructing a cryptic message of such obscure length and enigmatic detail particularly when writing in their own blood. The author’s guiding hand is so obvious here that any tenuous suspension of disbelief is shattered.
And so I find myself in a difficult position, having just written a cryptic threat into the opening chapter of my WIP which reads “Elber get the terrors.” It makes little sense to the protagonist – or for that matter, to the reader at that point. My job, I reckon, is to make sure it makes perfect and simple sense from the sender’s point of view.
Otherwise, my inexpert guiding hand will be as visible as Dan Brown’s when he reveals, as his chapter-end cliffhanger, that Sauniere’s message is in fact even longer, and concludes with the hitherto concealed words “p.s. Find Robert Langdon.”
No kidding.


  1. Totally agree with you. Though not involving a cryptic message, I also spend time making sure characters' actions make sense. I always ask why would he or she do such a thing.

  2. Yes! I remember reading an article entitled 'Monsters Have Feelings Too', which encouraged writers to think of villains as people rather than ciphers or mechanisms. Refreshing stuff.

  3. Yeah, it's all about imaging yourself in that position isn't it? Given that character's experience and disposition what would they reasonably do?
    I suppose a cryptic message in the dying senders blood could be plausible if the sender was a particularly twisted and ndividual, but that would have to have been clearly shown in the story up to that point, wouldn't it?
    I remember stephen frys main complaint against the da vinci code is that it kicks off with the most blatant bit of tell "Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere..." I think it was the 'renowned' bit he was objecting to.