What Are Subliminal Coordinates?
Write On! Roundup resumes
“Rhetoric is the will doing the work of the imagination” - W. B. Yeats
In my last post, on writing in layers, I mentioned “subliminal coordinates”, which Carol asked me to explain further. But before I elaborate, I must acknowledge the incomparable fiction writer Jim Shepard, who teaches at Williams College and also at the Sirenland Writers Conference, where I first heard him describe subliminal coordinates as “coded signals that fire like neurons inside the text to tell what the story is really about.”
By “story,” he meant any piece of literature, including fiction, poetry, essay, memoir, or dramatic writing. All depend on subliminal coordinates to deliver their ulterior messages.
Jim didn’t coin the term, though. That credit belongs to Vladimir Nabokov, who used it to explain how he charted the “nerves” of Lolita:
And when I thus think of Lolita, I seem always to pick out for special delectation such images as Mr Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale school, or Charlotte saying “waterproof”, or Lolita in slow motion advancing toward Humbert’s gifts, or the pictures decorating the stylised garret of Gaston Godin, or the Kasbeam barber (who cost me a month of work), or Lolita playing tennis, or the hospital at Elphinstone, or pale pregnant, beloved, irretrievable Dolly Schiller dying in Gray Star […] or the tinkling sound of the valley town coming up the mountain trail […] these are the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.
In simpler terms, subliminal coordinates are the junctures, like crossroads on a map, where the true meaning of the work pulses to the surface.
Or, think of them as flares that burst from the text’s subconscious. These phrases, images, or lines of dialogue are so packed with significance that they grab the reader’s attention, signaling critical subtexts, themes, and conflicts— all without explaining a thing. Through these flares, the reader feels the meaning of the story without fully understanding it.
For masterful writers, subliminal coordinates play a critical role in the process of revision.
To give you an example, let me share the opening of a memoir that I submitted to our workshop at Sirenland this year, with the passages that Jim tagged as subliminal coordinates in boldface:
Every Christmas when I was a child, my father and I would stay up late finishing our annual jigsaw puzzle. Such time alone was rare for us, and as the hours ticked past, our mutual silence would settle like a calming blanket. The woods outside might loom darkly through the living room’s double-decker windows, but embers from the great stone hearth radiated warmth, lamplight held us close, and my dad’s steady, measured breathing matched the beat of my heart. The two of us operated in concert as we sorted the mess of pieces. We’d mark our own separate territories then sink into shared concentration. Occasionally, almost unconsciously, one of us would reach across the table, offering the exact shape or color the other needed.
These subliminal coordinates tipped Jim off to three major themes that would be developed throughout the memoir:
· I had little physical access to my father as a child.
· I interpreted our mutual silence as a reassuring sign of intimacy.
· We helped each other make sense of the “mess” of our lives.
Note that these three reveals suggest more questions than answers. They’re not explanations but clues, not hard facts but assertions that dare the reader to ask Why or How or Really? All of this points to the two-fold navigational role of subliminal coordinates:
Engage the reader’s emotions to grab their subconscious attention.
Pique their subconscious curiosity about an important narrative thread.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Aimee Liu's Legacy & Lore to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.