Uswy Uthkd Xe Hncdymhq (This Title Is Nonsense)

Yeah, it’s another language post.  Buckle up: today I’m going to talk about codes and stories.

Codes are awesome. I’ve already been through all the reasons you should have a different language in your books: giving the reader a code or puzzle adds a whole new layer of reader involvement.  The best books have the reader constantly engaged, from investment in the characters to trying to figure out the shape of the plot.

This is the secret to video games: the puzzles and battles mean the player’s not just passively watching the story, they’re living it.  It’s incredibly immersive.  Books can make use of little immersion techniques, too. When you give someone a puzzle to solve, you’re giving them a personal investment in the book.  They’re becoming a part of the plot.

Plus it is so much fun to make puzzles.



Successful Secret Codes

I can think of a couple awesome books that use codes, but since I’ve been reading Artemis Fowl lately (check that out on Twitter if you haven’t yet) it’s at the front of my mind.  The series literally starts out with a code-breaking exercise.

Admittedly, the main character breaks a completely unknown language in a few weeks with a Mac laptop (a Mac!), but it does give the reader a puzzle: a series of strange letters that stretch across the bottom of every page, and the tools to decipher them.  While I hardly remembered the book itself when I started re-reading it a few months ago, I did remember the act of deciphering those letters: little me stretched out on my bedroom floor with scratch paper and a pencil, beaming as I figured out the letters.

Immersion.  Investment.  You’re a lot more likely to identify with a character who broke the same code you just figured out.

But here’s the thing that bugs me: once you have an eye for codes, you’ll notice that everyone uses the same codes everywhere. Artemis Fowl’s Gnommish is really just a substitute alphabet– as fun as that is it’s fairly easy to read.  If it’s not a full-on brand-new writing system it’s a Caesar cypher or a variation on Gnommish.

So here are a few secret codes you might have fun with.


The Easy Ones: Ciphers and Alphabets

Ciphers (like the one I used above) come in various degrees of difficulty.  There’s the simple cipher (or Caesar cipher, named for the general who used it), where each letter is “skipped” down a rotating alphabet by an agreed-on number. For example, if you decide to “skip” three numbers down, your letters change like so:

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w

Where a=x, b=y, c=z, and so on.  If you want to write the sentence “This is a cipher!” it would look something like “Qefp fp x zfmebo!”  Gibberish.  Great code, if you don’t know the number.

However, there are ways to figure out the number: the letters that show up most often are likely to be vowels, most likely ‘e’.  Single letters are usually an ‘i’ or an ‘a’.  It only takes cracking one to figure out the skip code.  Once you know a=x, you can figure out that b=y, and so on.

This is how you figure out the substitute alphabet as well: it’s literally the exact same puzzle.  The cipher looks difficult because it’s making symbols out of familiar letters, as opposed to creating entirely new ones.


The Other Simple Ones: Codes

The difference between a code and a cipher is this: a cipher is a math problem, and a code requires a book.  A cipher is “Qefp fp x zfmebo!”.  A code is “Falcon to Mermaid: the eggs are in the nest.” You can’t switch around the letters of “Falcon” to find a new word unless you’re really clever and have a villain named Nafcal), but you can realize that “Falcon” is the man up on the roof with a sniper rifle and “Mermaid” is the one hiding in the public pool with a Scuba getup.

One of my favorite moments in television occurs on BBC’s new Sherlock series.  Sherlock spends a good half the episode chasing after a set of symbols that he assumes form a cipher, only to find out that they’re a Chinese number system that refers to a code.  He then has to find the book that the code refers to, essentially solving an entirely different puzzle.  Little tricks like that are fantastic plot points, and a great way to screw with an intelligent puzzle-solving audience.


The Harder Ones: Ciphers and Symbols

There are ways to make your puzzles a little harder for your readers.

For example, pause reading and try to decipher my title with the method I told you about earlier.  You’ll come up with gibberish: the title is a cipher, but it’s a little more complicated than just a skip code.

The cipher I used requires either a set of numbers or a “code word”: the longer the code word, the more difficult the decryption.   It’s essentially the same process as above, but with an added layer of complexity.  If your code word is, say, four letters long, you use four different ciphers.  Each letter corresponds to a number value in the alphabet, and tells you how to make each cipher.

Let’s say we use “cat” as a code word for the phrase “This is a cipher!”.  We’ll make a separate cipher for each letter: ciphers C, A, and T.  Then we’ll write out the word to see which applies to each letter of our message, then encode it.

For each letter, we figure out our new alphabet…

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t

Once we have that down, we write out our phrase and figure our which cipher will be applied to each letter.  We start with the C cipher, then the A, then the T.

T h i s  i s  a  c i p h e r!”
c a t c  a t  c  a t c a t c

And then we apply it.  We’ll do the C letters first: “T h i s  i s  a  c i p h e r!” becomes  “Qhip is x cimheo!”

The A cipher doesn’t actually need encryption.

Then the T letters: “T h i s  i s  a  c i p h e r!” added to the previous two becomes the fully-encrypted “Qhbp im x cbmhyo!”

And voila: we have “Qhbp im x cbmhyo!”  The problem is difficult, but solvable if someone wants to take the time.


Okay, that’s complicated. How and why would I use it in a book?

It depends on your audience.

If you’re writing a complicated, realistic thriller, you don’t want to use something simple.  Militaries haven’t used the Caesar Cipher since it got its name, so if your bad guy is going head-to-head with Saddam Hussein it’s probably not a good code to use.  For the really realistic, complicated stuff, there are plenty of free resources online: get into serious cryptography or find someone who is.

But if you’re doing something less-involved, it’s easy to throw in a puzzle or two.  Eoin Colfer used a perfect puzzle in the Artemis Fowl series: simple but challenging for the target audience, seamlessly involved in the plot, and augmented the experience.  A code-word cipher is a great way to encode a journal or a letter no matter your genre: mixed up with the symbols of a new writing system or the vocabulary of a constructed language and you’ve got a pretty involved puzzle for anyone who wants to try it.

This is usually the point where I let someone take a crack at the cipher I used in the title, but I did already give you the translation.  So bonus points if anyone can tell me the code word I used to write it.

And double bonus points if anyone wants to make their own code in the comments below!



3 thoughts on “Uswy Uthkd Xe Hncdymhq (This Title Is Nonsense)

  1. There’s a typo in your coded title (the second word is only 4 letters instead of 5 – so maybe you meant code…?). So the devilish codebreaker in me cannot work out your codeword.
    Waiting for an edit…?


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