Friday, April 23, 2010

A skimpily veiled passage, laced with Freudian slips...

No, this post has nothing to do with Lingerie.  This post is in response to a critique I heard at my small critique group a few weeks ago.

"That description of your character sounds strangely sexual," quoth the critic.

"It was not supposed to be please get your head out of the gutter," said the critiqued.

Don't worry, Nobody really said that.

But this critique prompted an interesting dissection of the paragraph in question, and in the end something interesting was discovered.  While the sentences themselves didn't in anyway imply anything sexual, many of the descriptive words used--when read as a group--could create that feeling in a reader.

Subliminal writing. 

I'm sure other writers may refer to it in some other term but this is my post and I'll call it what I want to...

In a nutshell, subliminal writing is purposely using specific mood words in your writing to elicit a feeling or image.  This may sound like basic writing skills 101 but few readers ever realize this technique is being used on them.  Here's an example:

The man named Smith sliced his way through the thin crowd, cutting through the booths without ever taking his eye from the diplomat.  Smith's lips creased in a grin.  The diplomat stood precisely where he had said he would...the single point untouched by the piercing gaze of security cameras.  Smith stuck a hand into his pocket, grasping the weapon--he had to act sharp if this was going to be a clean kill...

Now, what weapon do you think Smith has? 

If you said a knife, then it is likely you've just picked up subconsciously the feeling the words were meant to make you feel.  Look at the word choice:  sliced, thin, cut, through, creased, precisely, point, piercing, stuck, sharp, clean.  All of these were chosen specifically because they leave a feeling of "knife" without ever actually say it.  In this case it may be overdone for the purpose of illustration, but still one can see the benefit of using this type of subliminal writing when used for effect.

For authors, it is especially helpful to keep this in mind in the revising stage of your writing.  Have a passage that you want to add a little more mood to?  Make a list of words that describe that feeling and see if any will help your passage.  If this doesn't help, throw in goat.

Want to read a great example?  If you haven't already, check out The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman


  1. I confess, I may have said something a little LIKE that...
    The Critiqued

  2. (And for the record...totally innocent passage.)

  3. And by the way, Mister, I gave you an award. On my blog. (It doesn't have anything to do with unloading the dishwasher for me last night. ;)

  4. Actually I liked phrases in books that come across as strangely sexual, better than overtly sexual actually.

  5. Well Put!! (But I thought the weapon was going to be a Cuisinart Hand Blender...oops.) Looking forward to your blog. I saw it won an award :)
    Witness of Critique