The Art To Writing Subliminal Messages (Part I)

In the previous two blog posts, we discussed how to write great dialogue in the conventional sense i.e. where two (or more) people talk to one another. However, when writers wish to take their dialogue to the next level, they add in subliminal messaging. But what exactly is subliminal messaging, and what is the art to writing subliminal messages?

What Is Subliminal Messaging?

Simply put, subliminal messaging is when the writer writes two conversations at once: one between the POV Character and another, and the other between the POV Character and the audience.

This is hard to achieve. Writing subliminal messages is not as simple as a guy making overtures to a girl because he likes her, but denies it when asked. This is called lying (by both the guy and the writer) and is little more than a cheap (and predictable) plot twist.

No, as said above, there is an art to writing subliminal messages and it must be done with the utmost care and thought by the writer. Otherwise, the writer will come across as an amateur at best, and a charlatan at worst.

In this blog piece, we shall look at the following forms that the art to writing subliminal messages can take:

  • Having a speech that talks as much to the characters and the audience in different ways;
  • Having speech that has a double meaning; and
  • Having a POV Character think one thing, but say another.

When Words Resonate With The Characters And The Audience Differently

The art to writing subliminal messages can sometimes be seen when writers write something profound in their stories. When a character says certain words, they resonate as much with audience as to the character he/she is speaking to. But in very different ways.

Writers can achieve this is by having a character say something deep and specific to the situation; yet, vague enough that it can apply to the different members of the audience, in their unique circumstances.

Example 1 – Gandalf To Frodo in Moria

In The Fellowship of the Ring film, the fellowship are stuck in Moria. It is then that Gandalf and Frodo have a heart-to-heart, and Gandalf tells him: “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

the art to writing subliminal messages - Gandalf to Frodo in Moria
It is when the fellowship are stuck in the cave that Gandalf says arguably the most profound line of the LOTR trilogy. It touches every member of the audience in a different, which is why it has brilliant subliminal undertones.

Indeed, these words are so profound that Frodo plays them over in his head when he leaves the fellowship at the end of the movie.

Explanation

What Gandalf says is self-explanatory with regards to Frodo and the Ring. But his words apply to just about everyone who graces Earth. In some ways, his words make up one of the fundamental tenets of life – that it is what we do that defines us, and that we should choose wisely when we make our decision(s).

Moreover, because his words are said in the second person, what Gandalf says talks directly to the audience. In fact, his words can even act as a catalyst to the viewer to crack on and do the thing that he/she has been meaning to do for a while.

Example 2 – “Why Do We Fall, Bruce?”

Batman Begins starts off with a memory of young Bruce Wayne falling down an old well and being attacked by bats. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, comes down and picks up his son. To make him feel better, Thomas tells young Bruce: “Why do we fall, Bruce?… So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Explanation

Thomas’ words are one of the major themes of The Dark Knight Trilogy. And, like with Gandalf’s words, above, they speak as much to the audience about their circumstances as they do to Bruce.

Not to sound too cliché, but we all take blows in life; we all get hurt and we all get knocked down. And each time we get knocked down, we must push ourselves back up onto our feet again, however much it may pain us.

That is what Bruce does in Batman Begins and again in The Dark Knight Rises when he is stuck in the pit (as can be seen in the header for this blog piece). It is exactly what we should all do in life when we face adversity.

When Speech Has A Double Meaning

The art of subliminal messages can be seen in another way when dealing with words or phrases that have a double meaning. This is called a double entendre, and it entails that when a character says one thing he/she means something very different.

Example 1 – Tomorrow Never Dies

In Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as 007, the telephone rings while he is in bed with a Danish woman. It’s Moneypenny. He doesn’t really want to talk to her (for obvious reasons), so James tells her that he is busy “brushing up on a little Danish.”

the art to writing subliminal messages - James Bond telling Moneypenny that he is brushing up on his Danish.
James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) having the misfortune of having to take a call while… with a Danish woman.

Explanation

A detailed explanation for this scene is not necessary. (Watch it if you are that interested and want a chuckle.)

Nevertheless, this example highlights that a double entendre can be used as a way to speak politely (and humorously) about matters that are lurid.

Example 2 – “A Brave Decision”

Yes Minister was a British satirical series set in Parliament in the 1970s. Throughout the series, often the minister’s personal secretary would say to the minister that his decision was a “brave” one or a “courageous” one.

Explanation

Suffice to say, whenever the personal secretary told the minister that his decision was “brave” or “courageous,” he did not mean it to have positive connotations. Rather, it was a diplomatic way of saying that the decision was a foolish one with potentially disastrous connotations.

Writers can have useful assistants (secondary characters) say something similar to friends or powerful bosses in their novels to warn them against doing something rash or gravely dangerous.

When A Character Thinks One Thing, But Says Another

The most intelligent characters do not utter the first words that come to their minds. When inside the POV Character’s head (often through the Third Person Limited POV), the audience has the intimate experience of reading how the character operates. The audience can see the difference between what the POV Character thinks and what the POV Character says.

Indeed, sometimes there is a stark difference between the two. We saw this in the first of the two blog pieces on dialogue recently, when Glokta interrogated Salem Rews in Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself.

Example – Glokta, Salem Rews And Subliminal Messages

A piece of fan art depicting our mutilated antihero and POV Character, Glokta Dan Sand.

As his watering eyes adjusted to the brightness he recognized Glokta sitting opposite him, and his face suddenly filled with hope. A sadly, sadly misplaced hope.

“Glokta, you have to help me!” he [Salem Rews] squealed, leaning forward as far as his bonds would allow. “I’m falsely accused, you know it, I’m innocent! You’ve come to help me, yes? You’re my friend! You have influence here. We’re friends, friends! You could say something for me! I’m an innocent man, falsely accused! I’m-”

Glokta held up his hand for silence. He stared at Rews’ familiar face, as though he had never laid eyes on him before. Then, he turned to [his assistant, Practical] Frost. “Am I supposed to know this man?”

The albino said nothing.

“It’s me, Rews!” hissed the fat man, the pitch of his voice rising steadily towards panic. “Salem Rews, you know me, Glokta! I was with you in the war, before… you know… we’re friends. We-”

Glokta held up his hand again and sat back, tapping one of his few remaining teeth with a fingernail as though deep in thought. “Rews. The name is familiar. A merchant, a member of the Guild of Mercers. A rich man by all accounts. I remember now…” Glokta leaned forward, pausing for effect. “He was a traitor! He was taken by the Inquisition, his property confiscated. You see, he had conspired to avoid the King’s taxes… The King’s taxes!”

Explanation

From the text, the audience understands that what Glokta is saying to Salem Rews is very different to what he is thinking. In dialogue with Salem, Glokta is toying with him, enjoying the control and the torment he is causing him.

But the conversation that Glokta is having with the audience (i.e. the one of his thoughts) gives us a very different impression of him. Rather, it shows us that he is a broken man, wondering why he tortures people for a living. In other words, the subliminal message shows the reader that Glokta is a complicated character.

When A Non-POV Character Puts In A Hidden Message

This one we will discuss next week, plus others. In the meantime, thank you for reading the first part on the art to writing subliminal messages. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful.

Paul

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