Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Speaking in Code

Like the rest of the world, I watched Barack Obama's inaugural address last night. This speech was actually written by a 27-year-old speechwriter named Jon Favreau, although Obama writes many of his own speeches. Of course, I found it moving, and yes, I was covered with goosebumps at the prospect of George Bush living in Texas and far away from the levers of power, but I was also interested in the speech as a writer. 

Lately, I've become interested in coded language. Politicians are expert in using coded language. Their words are freighted with double meanings. There is the surface meaning, and then there is the coded meaning. The code can be a signal to supporters, or it can simply be an appeal to emotion by conjuring up cherished symbols and events. Consider this bit from the beginning of the speech:

"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents."

This is a sentence rich with historical symbolism. "We the people," excerpted directly from the U.S. Constitution.  "Forebears," a word that would only be used in historical context. "Founding documents," an echo of our Founding Fathers ... In all, this sentence, just a few sentences into the address, takes us emotionally back to the ideals upon which the Republic was founded.

Or what about this gem from later in the address:

"What the cynics fails to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Ha ha! I laughed out loud. Who could forget Reagan proclaiming that "government is the problem" or Bill Clinton declaring that the "era of big government is over"? In this one phrase, Obama pre-empted the argument over the size of government -- a losing argument for Democrats traditionally -- while simultaneously leveling a stinging criticism at the incompetency of George Bush's federal government.

In my own writing, I've begun to pay much more attention to embedded, deeper meanings of words. Coded language speaks directly to emotion, to the synapse-memory of your reader. And sometimes whole conversations, whole ways of life, can be compressed into a single word or single image. Moreover, a well-written book contains its own invented coding. The point isn't to speak to the reader's intellect, but to reach for their gut. 

In a practical sense, I think this argues for extreme economy on the page. Choose your descriptors, adjectives, verbs and adverbs very carefully. Aim for repetition, for simplicity. Because once the reader goes down your rabbit hole, you aren't dealing with them on a conscious level any more, but instead communicating directly with their subconscious. And I think this is where good books -- and good speeches -- are written. 


Mark Terry said...

In one of my favorite novels, "The Deal" by Peter Lefcourt, a B-movie producer wrangles a movie deal by peddling a script about Benjamin Disraeli, gets a black action-hero to play the part, has the script rewritten to more closely resemble Rambo, then everything goes to hell and he ends up shooting the film with a different cast in Yugoslavia while keeping the whole thing secret from the studio.

Anyway, very close to the end, there's a scene where Benjamin Disraeli, played by Jeremy Ikon, sees a Maltese whore, who says, "It has been an honor to serve England, sir."

Ikon flips out for the eleventh time.

"Every time she says, 'It's been an honor to serve England,' I hear in my head, 'It's been an honor to service England,' and I start to laugh and lose the thread. It's a pun, you see. It's a very unfortunate play on words. Do you suppose we can have a rewrite?"

At which point the scriptwriter, who has been constantly rewriting scenes to make the temperamental actors happy, finally balks....

"Jeremy wants a new line from Tricia here," Charlie said.

"What's wrong with the old line?"

"There's a pun ... an honor to serve England sounds to Jeremy like an honor to service England...."

"It's intentional."

"Really?" Jeremy Ikon raised an eyebrow imperceptibly.

"That's right. You see, this screenplay functions on more than one level. The pun gives it an ironic dimension."

"Well, my dear boy, irony or no, we have to deliver the dialogue, now don't we?"

LurkerMonkey said...

That's awesome. You know ... I write MG mostly right now, but I've been guilty of slipping in double entendres in a few places. I normally get called on it by my group, but if I don't, then I just consider it my secret ...

L.C. Gant said...

You make such a good point about double meanings and "economy on the page." I'm terrible at this sort of thing. It takes me three pages to say what I probably could have said in one! I'm always afraid my audience won't "get it," so I over explain. Ah, the struggles of being a writer...

LurkerMonkey said...


At least we're in good company, since writers are usually my favorite people...

I'm always cutting, cutting, cutting -- but I save the strictest cutting for the second draft and beyond. In the first draft, I just let it go because it's so much more fun that way.

Jude Hardin said...

The point isn't to speak to the reader's intellect, but to reach for their gut.


But I also think good writing must come from the gut.

spyscribbler said...

I used to tell myself that every line of dialogue had to say two things: first, the spoken thing, and second, the undercurrent, unspoken thing.

Gosh. I hope I do that automatically now. I'm getting real lazy. I don't think of all the things I used to think of. I need to.

LurkerMonkey said...



LurkerMonkey said...


I didn't have any real experience with that where dialogue is concerned until recently. I had a character who was playing a double game. It was fun, once I figured it out!

Zoe Winters said...

How can I encode: "You will buy all my future books and tell 10 of your closest relatives to do the same." into my fiction?

That's the million dollar question.