The Art To Writing A Subliminal Message (Part IV)

This is a topic that we have covered a few times before, in three blog posts. Still, I have come up with some other ways on the art to writing a subliminal message. So, here are a handful more for you to enjoy.

When The Narrative Makes Fun Of Its Characters

Though sometimes missed by audiences, there are situations in films, books and TV-shows where the narrative makes fun of its characters through subliminal messaging. Often, this will be done through two (or more) characters talking. As they talk, they highlight their ignorance. Arguably, this is satire at its finest.

Example – The Ignorance of Homer Simpson & Chief Wiggum Over Chinese New Year

the art to writing a subliminal message - homer and wiggum laughing
Homer and Chief Wiggum laughing at the supposed stupidity of the Chinese people when really the joke is on them.

In Season 12 Episode 9 of The Simpson’s, Chief Wiggum gives Homer a box full of fireworks. He claims that he confiscated them from some Chinese people, who were celebrating New Year’s Eve in February. Homer responds: “Oh yeah. Those guys and their crazy scams.” Subsequently, they both laugh at the supposed stupidity of the Chinese people.

However, the joke is on them. While the narrative does not state it, anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that Chinese New Year is between the end of January and the middle of February according to the Gregorian Calendar. Homer and Chief Wiggum merely demonstrate their lack of knowledge. While they laugh at the Chinese people, we (the audience) laugh at them.

When A Narrative Questions Its Main Character’s Reliability

The art to writing a subliminal message can be done through the unreliability of a narrator. Unreliable narrators are not a new phenomenon, but they can be hard to spot for the reader, at least initially.

The way writers can show that their POV Character is unreliable (i.e. a liar) is by him saying one thing, but his actions (either past or present) are contrary to what he claims.

Example 1 – Nick Dunne from Gone Girl

Throughout Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, particularly while it is from his POV, Nick Dunne asserts that he did not kill his wife, Amy; that he did not ever hurt her physically; and that he was a faithful, loving husband.

Well, this is somewhat true. Halfway through the film, we learn that Amy is indeed alive, so he did not kill her. But we do see him cheat with Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) quite early on in the narrative. So, already the audience may raise a brow at Nick’s assertions at being faithful. Then, at the end of the film, we see him violently push Amy against the wall. Does that mean that he was always violent towards her?

Example 2 – Jasmine from Blue Jasmine

the art to writing a subliminal message - unreliable character, Jasmine
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) looking like a glamorous wreck, as she plays fast and loose with the truth.

In Woody Allen’s brilliant drama, Blue Jasmine, we meet the titular Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, who won her second OSCAR for the role) on her way to her sister’s place in San Francisco. Jasmine’s life is clearly in disarray and she looks a glamorous wreck (if that’s possible).

Yet, no sooner does Jasmine speak about how awful her situation is, how she is broke, and how Uncle Sam is unfairly chasing her for money she doesn’t have, when she mentions that she took a flight in first-class from New York to San Francisco. This borders on a joke, and makes the audience question how honest she is.

And with good reason. The longer the film goes on, the more we see that Jasmine turned a blind eye to her ex-husband’s Bernie Madoff-esque financial crimes (which ruined people’s lives), so that she could live a life of luxury.

Be Careful What You Wish For

There is an old saying: “Be careful what you wish for… because you just might get it.” This is a profound moral message, as very often when people get what they wanted, they are not happy with it.

Stories can either explicitly state the above line. Or, better still, show it through the art of writing a subliminal message.

Example – Bedazzled (2000)

Bedazzled is a comedy, starring Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley. Elliott (Brendan’s character) longs to be with his colleague, Alison (Frances O’Connor), but feels he doesn’t stand a chance with her.

Enter The Devil (Elizabeth Hurley). She offers him seven wishes, and more or less each time Elliott wishes to be with Alison. However, The Devil sets him up to fail every time (as you can never win when you play with the devil) and each time something goes wrong.

First, Elliott wishes to be rich and married to Alison. He gets his wish, but Alison runs off with another man, leading Elliott to subsequently ask The Devil why Alison didn’t love him. The Devil’s response: “Oh, you never said you wanted her to love you. Why didn’t you say so?”

Second time round, Elliott wishes for him to be sensitive and for Alison to love him. Elliott gets his wish. But he is too sensitive for Alison’s liking, and Alison runs away with the same man as she did in the first wish.

This keeps going on and on until Brendan gives up and just wishes to be his normal self. The subliminal messages here are clear: one, never do a deal with the devil; and, two (more importantly), be careful what you wish for.

the art to writing a subliminal message - Bedazzled still
The Devil (Liz Hurley, centre) tempting Elliott (Brendan Fraser) in Bedazzled to make another wish to get what he longs for most (Alison). One should always be careful about what they wish for… as you may not like what you get.

What Is The Point Of Hatred?

It goes without saying that hate is a negative emotion. Perhaps, hate/hatred is the road to criminal acts. And where does that lead? Hurt for the victim and the victim’s family; death; and/or prison for the perpetrator.

A narrative can show what happens when hatred becomes all-consuming in a catastrophic way. Indeed, hatred can leave the audience numb and wondering what of it is. More specifically – What does hatred achieve?

Example – Romeo & Juliet

Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is one of his classic plays. It is about the atavistic hatred of two rival families (the Montagues and the Capulets) in Renaissance Venice. The eponymous duo love each other, but cannot be with each other due to the politics between their families.

As both Romeo and Juliet are mentally unstable characters, at the end they come to the conclusion that a life without each other is not worth living. So, one another the after, they commit suicide.

Thus, was the hatred worth it? Neither family wins as a result of the deaths. It just makes the audience ponder over what the two families had been fighting over in the first place.

Don’t Screw Up Your Life

It sounds like a line that a responsible parent would say. And he/she would be right to say it. When people make seriously bad life decisions, they will pay for it either immediately or down the line.

Example – Requiem For A Dream (2000)

Darren Aranofsky’s OSCAR-nominated Requiem For a Dream is a psychological thriller that centres around a few heroine junkies. Throughout the course of the narrative, the audience watches with revulsion as the lives of these addicts spiral out of control, into a hellish descent.

The film is stomach churning. By the end of it, all of the protagonists end up in varying degrees of horror, physically and mentally. The art to writing a subliminal message could not be starker here – don’t take drugs, don’t screw up your life.

This still of Jennifer Connolly’s character in Requiem For A Dream is one of many that underlines why taking drugs is a decision that leads eventually to disaster.

Thank You

Thank you for reading this blog post on the art to writing a subliminal message. I hope you have enjoyed it, and found it useful and interesting.

Let me know what you think in the comments below,


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