Created By: VVK on January 2, 2012 Last Edited By: VVK on January 5, 2012

Break Them by Talking

What it says; what people think Hannibal Lecture means.

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Note: This is what a lot of people seem to think Hannibal Lecture means, but it doesn't (see below for how it is a subtrope). A proposed change to match the definition to how it's used didn't go through, so I'm proposing a new trope instead to contain the misuse and cover this concept. A lot of the examples currently under Hannibal Lecture should be under this instead, because they just don't fit the definition there.

Almost satisfied with the title, but alternative suggestions will be considered. It would be nice to call it an "X Speech" or possibly (but probably not) "X Lecture", so that it would be more similar to what it's been incorrectly called so far in so many places. But the X is hard to think of.

Maybe I should declare "Breaking Speech" the nominal form for ease of use, but keep the above the main title for clarity?

Rolling Updates

When one character gives a talk to another that does or is meant to somehow break down the recipient or gain a psychological advantage over them by claiming uncomfortable things that they can't deny.

Obviously, this is easier to pull off from a relative position of power, such as when you have just defeated someone, or when interrogating a prisoner. But it goes both ways, and it's even more impressive when someone manages to turn the tables on someone who was in a superior position. When this is done by one being interrogated, and only then, it's the Hannibal Lecture. Naturally, in between these cases there is the one where both parties start out on an equal footing.

This is often achieved by a kind of "The Reason You Suck" Speech, telling the other character how pathetic they are or perhaps how guilty of something terrible, perhaps Not So Different from someone unpalatable, but there are other ways of breaking someone down by talking. You could for example instead deconstruct the world, other characters, or their relationship with the victim. The important part is that they can't deny your words, at least not in the heat of the moment, and you gain a psychological advantage over them. Results when successful range from the mere chance of getting to smirk in a satisfied way for rattling someone in an otherwise superior position; to bringing about a Break the Cutie, Heroic B.S.O.D., Villainous Break Down or even Face–Heel Turn or More Than Mind Control situation. The most extreme form would be Mind Rape by just talking, but be wary of automatically calling every instance of Breaking Them by Talking that.

As stated above, there is frequent overlap with "The Reason You Suck" Speech, but the concepts are not the same. "The Reason You Suck" Speech is about what you say, this is about what you do by saying it. You can tell someone they suck without breaking them down or even intending to do so, particularly if you're just annoyed, and you can break someone down without telling them why they suck.

The distilled version of this is the Armor-Piercing Question. If the declarations used as a weapon come from simple clues, this is a form of Sherlock Scan. Can be done as part of Evil Gloating. Shut Up, Hannibal! is a way of countering this trope. The opposite effect is done by a "World of Cardboard" Speech, when the hero tells about his own flaws and how they don't matter now. The reverse or "good counterpart" is the Kirk Summation or Talking the Monster to Death. Hannibal Lecture is a specific subtrope.

See also: To the Pain, Talking Your Way Out, Just Between You and Me, And Then What?, Verbal Judo.


[Like two thirds or more of everything under Hannibal Lecture. I've started moving some over, but I can't judge all examples from the descriptions alone as to whether they do belong there. Have changed most wordings referring to that article now, some still need other clean-up.

And now I'm wondering if some of these aren't just "The Reason You Suck" Speech without being this.]

Anime and Manga
  • In Dragon Ball Z, Goku of all people manages to do this to Frieza during their battle on Namek. After having ascended to the level of a Super Saiyan and smacking around the now fully-powered Big Bad, he abruptly decides that their battle is done. When a shocked Frieza demands to know what he means by that, Goku's response makes the killer of the Saiyan race and former #1 fighter in the universe (at least at the time) go through a mini-breakdown:
    Goku: Your power level is decreasing with every blow. You're not even a challenge to me anymore. It wouldn't be fair for me to keep fighting you. I'm satisfied now. Your pride has been torn to shreds. You've challenged and lost to a fighter who is superior to you...and to make it worse, "he was just a monkey", right?
    * Frieza is seething in anger, shocked and enraged at Goku's words*
    Goku: It would be meaningless to fight you now; you're too scared and ashamed. Live with the shock. Keep it bottled up inside of you...silently.

Comic Books
  • The Marvel Comics character Karnak has refined his powers to the point where he can do this. At first his power was just sensing the weak point in objects so he (or his stronger ally Gorgon) can smash it. Now he find personality flaws and verbally destroy an opponent.
  • Emma Frost of the X-Men is incredibly good at this. A great example of this can be found when after finding Kimura sneaking around the X-Mansion getting ready to kill X-23, Emma goes up to her and says...
    Emma: Do you ever wonder why you take such pleasure from abusing a little girl who can't hurt you, let alone defeat you? No, I thought not. You'll notice that you cannot move. I've shut down all your motor control so you can listen while I enlighten you. You are a bully, plain and simple. A product of your past. Being kicked around your whole life by an alcoholic father and an uncaring mother at home, only to find the same waiting for you from your peers in the schoolyard, day in and day out. You were born into a life you did not deserve... a life no child deserves... Someone needs to fill the role of victim and you played that part for so many... until your grandmother came to your rescue. But sadly she came too late. All the hope and good you held onto was beaten out of you long ago. After your grandmother's heart attack, you found your way to the Facility to the men that could give you what you wanted so badly... Revenge. A hollow prize, but one you begged for and once you'd gotten the best of those who wronged you, you became the very person you hated and feared growing up. And X-23 played the role of your victim. Like you, Laura didn't deserve that horrible life. No child does, remember? But you didn't care. Even though you know all too well the pain she suffered, you enjoyed inflicting it. You still enjoy it. That's why you're a bully.
    Kimura: Why are you telling me this?

  • Collateral is basically one long speech like this by assassin Vincent to his hostage Max which backfires epically towards the end.
  • Richard Nixon attempts to do this to his interviewer in Frost/Nixon with a late night phone call, but as his drunken ramblings progress, all his Not So Different lines only end up revealing how broken and full of self-loathing he is. Frost doesn't even need to say Shut Up, Hannibal! -- he now knows that all he needs to do is corner Nixon and the man will destroy himself.
  • Agent Smith The Matrix films.
    • His speech to Morpheus in the first movie is the most memorable:
    Smith: I'd like to share a revelation during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.
    • He delivers another one in the third movie as he watches Neo struggling to get back up after a royal thrashing - except Neo is barely listening to him and it just shows how Smith's mental state is crumbling.
    Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why? Why do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you're fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth, perhaps peace, could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception! Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence without meaning or purpose! And all of it as artificial as the Matrix itself! Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love! You must see it, Mr. Anderson, you must know it by now; you can't win, it's pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
    Neo: Because I choose to.
  • In Serenity (the Firefly film), The Operative likes to do this to people he is about to kill, crossing it with "The Reason You Suck" Speech by explaining to people what their 'sin' is. This goes poorly when he tries it on [Mal Reynolds
    Operative: "Do you know what your sin is, Malcolm Reynolds?"
  • Star Wars:
    • In the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker that he is Luke's father, but you already knew that, which is enough to cause a Heroic B.S.O.D., but his subsequent attempt to persuade him to join him fails.
    • In Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine focuses his full powers of charm and scheming to break and turn Luke. Luke is in the throne room along with Palpatine and Vader while the Rebel Alliance and all his friends are about to be destroyed, all, it turns out, according to Palpatine's plans. Palpatine's expositing this eventually drives Luke into attacking the unarmed emperor (as intended), only to be stopped by Vader, and soon Vader's speaking of his sister finally drives Luke into an Unstoppable Rage that almost pushes him to the Dark Side. However, he has a moment of clarity just before killing Vader, and rejects the Obviously Evil Palpatine's offer to become his new apprentice.
  • Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels: In the book Under The Radar, the Prophet Harold Evanrod tries to tell his followers of the pedophile polygamist sect Heaven On Earth, "You see, this is the Devil at work! I told you the people on the outside would try to drive us away from our homes and our religion because they don't understand it. They will be forever damned, and there will be no salvation for any of them. I want you all to be strong because we will prevail." However, the Vigilantes give an effective Shut Up, Hannibal! response to that.

Professional Wrestling
  • Shawn Michaels was a regular recipient of these speeches, particularly in the later parts of his career once he turned perma-face, but he usually interrupted them with Sweet Chin Music. Occasionally, after knocking his lecturer out cold, he'd deliver his own over their unconscious (or at last stunned) body. He was particularly fond of doing this to Chris Jericho.

    Back in his heel days, he used to hand them out himself like party favors. Even as a face, he'd break them out occasionally, and he's the one guy pretty much ever who could get away with throwing them at The Undertaker.
  • Vin Gerard performed a number of these on Shane Storm -- playing off Storm's betrayal of the technicos by selling out the counter to the Chikara Special (a Chikara Moral Event Horizon if there ever was one) and then twisting his world on its axis as Vin thanked him for it. Ended with Storm 'transforming' into the rudo STIGMA, dropping the colour from his outfits, the bright mullet becoming a black mohawk and joining with Vin Gerard and Colin Delaney to become the UnStable.
    • Then inverted when Vin tries the same thing on Jigsaw, who had removed his mask elsewhere and hadn't been seen in Chikara for a year. Vin said that he'd never seen the boys in the back as angry at anyone as they were at Jigsaw ("No matter what I did, I never had to buy a ticket!") and there was no way to get back on their good side - Jigsaw might as well join the UnStable. Jigsaw responded with superkicks.
  • Chris Jericho. Back in 2008 and early 2009 when everyone took his heel character completely seriously, Jericho would do this weekly. They rarely worked, but they were awesome.
  • CM Punk in his Straight Edge persona. He is so awesome that he can actually give these while he's in the middle of a match.

Tabletop Games
  • On the (very) few occasions when the Dark Powers of Ravenloft have apparently communicated directly to anyone, it's been to do this to a potential darklord, delivered in familiar voices. Strahd heard the voices of Tatyana and Sergei taunting him, while Azalin heard the voices of his son and his mentor in wizardry.
  • The World of Darkness sourcebook Slasher (which deals with exactly what you think it does) has this as a talent of the Genius Undertaking and its natural progression, the Maniac. The Genius has the ability to instinctively profile anyone and learn what facts they'd hate to have revealed. The Maniac uses this knowledge to always have advantage over a certain target, and, with time, to convert the target to his point of view (a la Jigsaw).

Video Games
  • Baldur's Gate:
    • In the sequence of mysterious dreams in the first game, the sinister presence lurking behind the player character's soul makes itself known and tries to bend them to its will, sometimes in words but just as often in images. The last dream ends with the equivalent of a "World of Cardboard" Speech, where the protagonist recognises they can control their own fate.
    • In BG II: Shadows of Amn, there is a similar but less focused sequence of dreams where something that looks like the Big Bad lectures you.
    "Why do you stand for this!? Why do you submit to the flesh when death is bred in your bones?"
    • Turns out though that it isn't quite what it seems. By the point the lecturer is replaced by your sister you'll have figured out the origin though...
      "What does an eternity of nothingness matter when you can defeat all your opponents as easily as one... two... three... four... FIVE!"
    • In BG II: Throne of Bhaal, this is done by some wraiths to both the protagonist and their possible love interest by taking the forms of their lost loved ones and making hurtful accusations. It's a ploy to make the victims break down and become easy prey.
  • Planescape: Torment:
    • Ravel, a mid-way adversary, confronts any and all characters in the party with a (de)moralizing tirade about how their particular history of suffering, self-deception, and misdeeds have shaped them, noting that in the end it was these things that led them to follow the lead character on his quest, so ensnared in circumstances that the choice never truly was their own. Though she is promptly defeated after this, the things she alludes to usually cast the pasts of both the NPCs and the Player Character in a new (and usually less pretty) light.
    • The Nameless One himself can use the technique on the resident Knight Templar, which convinces him to pass on as there's nothing worth holding on to in his unlife any longer.
  • In World of Warcraft, as you progress through the questline to create Shadowmourne, a legendary weapon to match the The Lich King's own, he whispers to you about how you and he both harvest souls for your own ends, he too once sought a weapon of great power, how he commands powers beyond you, et cetera.

  • A "good" version appears in Darths and Droids, though it is used by one protagonist convincing another to destroy the Trade Federation ship.
  • Order Of The Stick:
    • Redcloak telling Miko how she's just as unnatural as an undead creature here. It doesn't work, though, since almost nothing can get through her conviction that she's always in the right.
    • Xykon, often, just after having handed his opponents their asses. Also to Roy in trying to make Roy accept a mulligan, but Roy throws it right back in his face with a "World of Cardboard" Speech. Xykon kills him for it.
    • Right-Eye gives one to Redcloak in Start of Darkness, when the latter claims to have spent his life on The Plan.
    Right-Eye: "Brother, you may have had a lifetime, but you haven't had a life since the day you put on that cloak. Life is about growing -- growing older, growing wiser, growing closer to your loved ones. But you, you're frozen in time. You're the same angry kid who took that artifact off of your master's corpse that day.
    Redcloak: Oh, so now you've gained some insight on the universe by letting your body and mind deteriorate?
    Right-Eye: YES! When you're faced with your own mortality, you have no choice but to consider what's best for the next generation. And this deal with Xykon is killing our spirit as fast as it's killing our bodies. You don't know what it is you're trying to better, because you don't know what it's like not to serve an undead overlord, or a petty spiteful god.
    Redcloak: ...What did you just say to me?
    Right-Eye: Come on. You have to realize that the Dark One doen't care about us. Why else would he let you throw goblin lives away on this plan?
    Redcloak: Throw away lives? How dare you?! Every goblin that has died since I've been high priest has been to further The Plan! Their deaths were a ncessary sacrifice! They were NOT my fault!
    Right-Eye: Wait...that's it, isn't it? It's all about whose fault it is... If I kill Xykon now, then it was all a waste. You ordered goblins to their deaths believing in the Plan- so if we abandon it now, then you were wrong. You let them die for nothing. You're willing to throw good lives after bad so that you don't have to admit that we were wrong to work with Xykon in the first place, much less help him cheat death.
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: Lucy finally lets Charlie Brown kick the ball... and then tells him just what the implications are.
  • Sluggy Freelance:
    • In "Oceans Unmoving", Bun-bun does this to Calix while duelling (and beating) him, explaining to him how he doomed his own people by encouraging them to mutiny on a high-tech ship they were subsequently unable to steer. Also lampshaded:
    Bun-bun: When we first shanghaied you, I thought I saw something in you that I liked. Now that I have the opportunity to crush your soul, I like you even more.
    • In "A Time for Healing", the zombie Jane gives Gwynn a "The Reason You Suck" Speech at least bordering on this about how annoying and shallow she finds her and how someone like her couldn't use real magic. Unfortunately for Jane, her last taunts makes Gwynn angry enough that she's finally able to show that yes, she does have access to about a hundred times more powerful magic than Jane does.
    • In "bROKEN", Bun-bun traps Oasis in a sauna and, after berating her for stupidity, starts verbally tormenting her with images of her "beloved" with another woman. It ends up almost as badly for him as in Jane's case.
  • In xkcd, during the first meeting of Black Hat Guy and his girlfriend. Here and here.

Western Animation
  • In the Family Guy episode "Seahorse Seashell Party", Meg finally breaks down and points out all of their hypocritical acts of ganing up on her and puting her down making her feel awful, and how they raised her specifically for that purpose. Her Lecture is harsh enough to send Lois into tears, and then makes all of the members of the family turn onto one another, ending with Peter crying and fleeing upstairs where Lois goes to look for him.

    When Meg's alone with Brian, Brian congratulates her on finally standing up for herself and he is proud of her. However Meg, upset, mentions how after she pointed out all of their faults they turned on each other "like a pack of wolves". She then comes to the conclusion that she is the part that holds the family together by having each family member blame her and thus are able keep peace with each other, and while not a pleasant purpose it is still her purpose and she must embrace it. Brian congratulates Meg on her nobility and self-sacrifice, telling her that she is stronger and a better person than anyone else in the family. Meg than finds Peter crying in a closet, where he states he doesn't "deserve no better than living with the shoes". After the rest of the familiy enters, Meg says that she was just taking out her frustration on them and they didn't deserve it, and are in fact a great family. After they all put down Meg, they calm down and end up hugging.
  • Justice League:
    • In the episode "A Better World", the Mirror Universe President Lex Luthor uses one of these on his version of Superman. It partially succeeds. Superman does indeed break down as a result...just not in the way Luthor wanted.
    • In the same episode, Batman also pulls one of these...on himself.
      • And he won. When you think about it, Lord!Batman manages to win the first one ("We created a world where no eight year old boy will ever lose his parents... because of some punk with a gun.") and Batman does this later while driving in the Batmobile ("They'd love it here, Mom and Dad. They would be so proud of you.").

        The commentary states that the scene was created by one half of the production team debating the other from Batman's point of view. And to actually keep the viewer in the dark, neither Batman nor Lord!Batman faced the audience while talking, thus allowing a one sided conversation that either Batman could have been winning until the reveal.
    • In the Justice League Unlimited episode "Divided We Fall", several of the robotic evil knockoffs created by Brainithor (Lex Luthor merged with Brainiac) use this technique. It works against Superman due to his fears of being Not So Different from his Alternate Universe Evil Counterpart, but Evil Flash has what might be the least successful attempt in history:
    Evil Flash: Slacker! Child! Clown! We have no place here among the world's greatest heroes!
    Flash: Says you! I've got a seat at the big conference table. I'm gonna paint my logo on it! [punches through Evil Flash's chest]
  • My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic: In "The Return of Harmony", the especially vicious Faux Affably Evil villain Discord corrupts each of the main ponies to keep them from using the Elements of Harmony that they represent against him. Ultimately he just brainwashes each of them with magic (aside from Twilight Sparkle), but he also takes the trouble to break each down before that, usually by talking. In Applejack's case, he manipulates her to doubt the value of honesty (her element) by showing her a terrible "truth" that she can't accept, before turning her into a liar. For Pinkie Pie (laughter), he makes her think her friends laugh at her all the time, before turning her unhappy and hostile. Fluttershy (kindness) is the only one on whom his speech doesn't work, because she's too trusting, and accepting of her own flaws... So he just zaps her into being cruel anyway.
    Discord: Well, it must be so upsetting to know how weak and helpless they think you are.
    Fluttershy: Not at all! I am weak and helpless, and I appreciate their understanding.

Real Life
  • A series of independent experiments carried out by a sadist Harvard psychology professor in the 1960s could be counted as an extreme (and, as it turned out, extremely unfortunate) real-life example of Breaking Them by Talking. University students were instructed to write an essay summarizing their personal philosophy on life and underlying principles, then went into a room expecting to debate philosophy with a fellow student. They instead faced an interrogation by a far more experienced opponent, whose sole purpose was to attack and ridicule their beliefs at length. Since one of the main goals of the experiment was to induce stress and upset the subject as much as possible, it's not surprising that many students came out feeling traumatized. One of them eventually went completely over the edge (for this reason or some other) and became the Unabomber.

    The professor had worked with the CIA in developing a test that tested pilots' wills, preventing them from possibly being brainwashed if captured. He decided to "fine tune" his technique using students as test subjects, but really the guy was a sadist who got off on this sort of thing. WNYC's Radio Lab covered this story in one of their pieces titled "Oops", you can hear it here starting at 4:20.
Community Feedback Replies: 6
  • January 2, 2012
    Does this occur often enough with Arm Chair Psychology to warrant mention in the description?
  • January 2, 2012
    I can't really say at this point. I've never thought about that, because Arm Chair Psychology doesn't seem to be a trope I've ever specifically paid attention to.
  • January 4, 2012
    I like this. I think its a good idea. Now Hannibal Lecture can stick to its original definition and the other usage can go here. As for the name, I think it works: clear, direct etc. I would like something wittier but nothing comes to mind. As for the examples, some of them DO overlap a lot with Reason You Suck Speech, the Dragon Ball Z example, for istance, is purely that trope because Goku's goal doesn't seem to be breaking him but point out he's already broken. A limitus test for this trope could be two things:

    1. The reason you suck If they gain a pyschological edge without telling the person they suck, than it can't be the other trope.

    2. Motive Like the description already says, what they hope to gain. From just for a smirk or More Than Mind Control to a Heroic BSOD.

    For the second reason I'm worried about the Emma Frost example. It seems to be just a Reason You Suck speech. She'd already won the fight by then, neutralized the danger, the speech was just extra.
  • January 4, 2012
    Yes, a few of the examples from the Hannibal Lecture page may not even fit here. But it does say "break them down or gain an advantage", so you can already have the advantage; that's supposed to catch the idea behind how people have been using Hannibal Lecture. As for The Reason You Suck Speech, its definition is currently under debate too, but my preference would be to restrict that as little as possible (and in relation to this, just allow the overlap). In any case, I don't want to hang the meaning of this trope on that other one, except maybe later once it's settled, since it's another one where the discussion has been taking a long time and has got stuck.

    The issue that you point to that is most of a question mark to me as well is whether the effect has to be intended, or whether it's enough for it to end up being like that. I'm inclined towards including both. So you could have it 1) intended but not working, 2) intended and working that way or 3) not intended but still working that way, and all would be examples. That may be kind of broad, but it's still limited enough to have meaning, and it's trying to capture how Hannibal Lecture had been used. The big thing I was trying to figure out when I was trying to have that trope changed was what the meaning everyone was giving to it was, because clearly there was something, people were thinking about approximately the same thing, even though it wasn't what was said on the page. This is that.
  • January 4, 2012
    Oh, man, yes: good work! Nice de-tangle!

    Scream if you need help with the weeding from the Hannibal Lecture and/or The Reason You Suck Speech pages, as I agree: many examples are found there.
  • January 5, 2012
    Thanks, I'd appreciate the help once this is launched. I don't think I'll have the time. The examples I took from Hannibal Lecture ended up back there again by mistake (don't ask), so some there need moving and some just removing. I don't currently think The Reason You Suck Speech has a problem with examples that should be here, and I'll leave it up to the repair discussion there to decide what they'll do with that.