Months early for Easter, I know. But, as some of you may have guessed, I’m not really talking about those Paas coloring kits. Or the Cadbury Bunny.
For those few of you who are still waiting to see if Betamax is going to win the format wars, an Easter egg is a hidden bonus on a DVD or Blu-ray. As of late, the term’s been broadened to include any little onscreen reference or in-joke.
A lot of superhero movies tend to have “Easter eggs,” in this broad sense. Captain America’s shield (or a version of it) showing up in Tony Stark’s workshop. Superman and General Zod crashing into a Wayne Industries satellite while they fight. Agent Coulson stopping at a Roxxon gas station on the way out to New Mexico. Professor Horton’s synthetic man at the WWII Stark Expo (a two-for-one Easter egg, really). Heck, I remember giggling with geeky joy when Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne made an offhand comment about some people being “halfway to Metropolis by now.”
I think most writers do this on one level or another. We put in little in-jokes and references. Sometimes they’re ten percenters, others they’re so small and private maybe only a dozen people in the world are going to get them. I know I’ve done a bunch of them in different books and short stories.
Now...a few weeks back I read an interview with Joss Whedon about the new Agents of SHIELD show. The interviewer wanted to know if we’d be seeing lots of guest spots from some of the movie characters like Nick Fury or Cap or maybe Dr. Banner. Whedon kind of shrugged it off and said while he wasn’t against it, the show wouldn’t last long if it was all about waiting for the next guest star or movie reference. It needed to stand on its own feet, without support from the films.
See, that’s the catch with these sort of in jokes and clever references. My story needs to work despite these ten percenters, not because of them. If all I’ve got is a few clever nods to other things, I don’t have a real story—no matter how clever those nods are.
This is also relates to a common prequel problem. In prequel stories, there are often Easter eggs to all the stuff the audience knows is in the future. Smallville would often dress teenage Clark Kent in blue t-shirts with a red jacket, or have numerous guest stars who would be important later in his life (like ace reporter Perry White). Hannibal Rising had the titular character learning to cook and trying on samurai half-masks that hinted at the signature muzzle he’d wear later. The Star Wars prequels showed us glimpses of the Death Star and hints of the Empire. As I write this, there’s a pair of shows on the air, each about a famous fictional serial killer at an earlier part of their life. And each show relies heavily on the fact that we, the audience, knows who this character is going to become. There are constant winks and nods and references to things in their respective futures.
In most of these cases, though, when you strip away all the references to “the future,” it becomes clear there’s very little going on in the now.
There’s a similar problem you’ll see a lot in bad comedies. It’s when the plot grinds to a halt to show us a painfully long setup for a joke that does nothing except get a quick laugh. It’s not humor advancing the story, it’s just humor for the sake of humor. And that gets old real quick, no matter how funny the gag might be on its own.
I’ve mentioned seeing this in a fair number of genre stories. A writer comes up with a really cool and new (or what they think is really cool and new) idea about zombie origins or time travel mechanics or vampire biology or cyborg implants or something. But they don’t actually have a story. They just have this one cool idea trying to carry everything.
All of these examples tie back to something I’ve brought up before. One cool idea isn’t a story. It’s just a story point. And one story point—or even a dozen of them—does not make a book. Or a movie. Or even a short story.
Easter eggs are cool and fun, no question about it. But you can’t live off them. And a story can’t survive on nothing but sly winks.
Next week, I think it’s time for that long overdue lecture on structure that I’ve been promising for months.
Until then, go write.