The assassin shivered. Why him? As far as he could see there was only one kind of help he was qualified to give, and very few people ever asked for it for themselves.
One or more characters encounter someone else, who is in company or seems to be busy. Everything seems to be normal, or at least the person encountered seems to be calm or in control. But then, somewhere along the line, the person encountered communicates very quietly — a whisper or a murmur, perhaps just a gesture or a passed note. Their message is short but clear; just "Help Me" or "Save Me", or something on those lines. (In really extreme cases, "Kill Me" is possible.) Then they continue acting as before.
This can be a moment of violent Mood Whiplash, as a situation which seemed comfortable or unremarkable is suddenly shown in a completely different light. The person making the plea is evidently desperate or terrified, probably being watched by a hostile third party, and may be taking a risk just by asking for help. In the worst case, the person making the plea is actually physically injured and maybe close to collapse; they may pass out a few seconds later, triggering a race for medical help or even a tragic death scene. They may even fall over in a way that reveals a previously unseen knife in their back or other serious wound. And even if they aren't hurt yet, they do need that help; if they don't get it, because they were too subtle or the recipient was too dumb, well, Poor Communication Kills.
Very often, though, the trope is Played for Laughs; the person making the plea is out of their depth and desperate, but maybe not in serious physical danger — perhaps they've just made a comedy screw-up which they can't confess too openly, or they're just trapped in conversation with someone terribly boring, but can't get away without seeming rude. The humor may lie in the bizarre methods they try to use to alert others to their predicament, or the other characters being insanely Oblivious to Hints and looking right through their increasingly blatant attempts at hidden communication.
Organised heroes will have a Covert Distress Code to make this more reliable. Alternatively, it may turn out that Everyone Knows Morse when this trope comes into play. An Out-of-Character Alert may achieve a similar or related result. This trope sometimes overlaps with Stealth Insult, when a person held captive insults their captors in a way they can't figure out in order to signal to potential rescuers that they're being held against their will.
- In Fantastic Four #348, Reed is being held hostage by a Skrull disguised as his wife, who has captured the rest of the FF. He tells his robotic secretary, Roberta, that they're just leaving the Baxter Building for a day trip, and to be sure to tell that to her friends in the Marines. Being a robot, Roberta has no friends in the Marines, so she researches the phrase, discovers its colloquial meaning and realises something is wrong. She then finds and frees the rest of the FF, who then rescue Reed.
- In Kim Possible Movie: So the Drama, Ned (the former manager of the local Bueno Nacho) tries to warn Ron that something is seriously wrong without being noticed by the new manager. Ron doesn't get the message... until he tries to complain directly to the company's CEO about their change from bendy straws to non-bendy straws and finds himself talking to Dr. Drakken.
- The Brady Bunch: In A Very Brady Sequel, Carol Brady is kidnapped and taken to Hawaii by a man posing as her first husband. As they check into a hotel, she tries knitting a plea for help.
- In Charlie's Angels (2000), Dylan tries to code to her assignment Eric that his female cohort Vivian, who just walked in the room, is the Big Bad using Scrabble tiles ("ENEMY"). Unfortunately for her, Vivian is actually The Dragon to his Big Bad.
- A liquor store owner is being robbed at gunpoint when Anti-Hero Hancock strolls in to buy two large bottles of booze. The owner rings up the sale as $91.10, which Hancock declares outrageous. The owner points to the LED display- ostensibly to verify the price, but with one finger over the zero so that only "91.1" is visible. Hancock gets the hint, and unsubtly corrects the problem.
- In one scene in Men in Black, Laurel (Linda Fiorentino) is talking to Jay (Will Smith) in the morgue while the hidden Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) is watching her, having threatened her with death if she gives him away. Jay persistently misinterprets Laurel's attempts to alert him as sexual come-ons.
- In the Made-for-TV Movie Murder In The Heartland, Caril Ann Fugate quietly tries to warn away a relative who's turned up at the house where her boyfriend just murdered her family. However, she does it so subtly the person spoken to doesn't notice. This doesn't help her case when she's later accused of complicity in the murders.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Jack speaks in the native tongue of the Pelegostos when Will is brought to him, and doesn't seem to recognise him. When Will is being taken away, however, he hisses "Save me!", as the Pelegostos are cannibals who wish to free the God in Jack's body from his "fleshy prison."
- Revenge of the Sith: At one point, Obi-Wan Kenobi travels to Utapau due to hearing that General Grievous is there. When he first arrives, there doesn't appear to be any danger, and the Pau'an leader tells him everything is fine. Once he mentions Grievous, the Pau'an motions for everyone else to leave, and then whispers:
- In The River Wild, a family has been taken hostage by two gunmen. As they're approached by a state trooper, they're ordered to act perfectly normal. They comply, but the husband manages to scratch an "SOS" into the dirt. Unfortunately, his actions are discovered by one of the gunmen before the cop can notice it.
- The eponymous alien in Starman compels young Jenny Hayden to drive him to Arizona. While making a rest stop at a filling station, Jenny scrawls a distress message in lipstick on the mirror. Starman then inspects the ladies room and sees the message, but has to ask Jenny what "kidnapped" means.
- In When the Bough Breaks (1994), Jordan, who is normally The Speechless, whispers "Help me, help me," the only words he utters in the movie.
- In xXx, during a diner scene, the waitress offers the hero, Xander, waking up from a knockout dart, a cup of coffee. When asked about her shaking hands, she says she's okay, but when Xander picks up the cup of coffee, "911" is written on the napkin.
- In Bravo Two Zero, Andy McNab's captors force him to record a video message to show that he is not being mistreated. He remembers part of his SAS training that involved learning to slip uncharacteristic gestures into any such communications, such as constantly running your fingers through your hair if that is not a regular habit. Of course, his commanding officers knew better than to believe this sort of propaganda in the first place.
- There are at a few occurrences in the Discworld series:
- A borderline variant appears in The Colour of Magic: Rincewind tries to take advantage of the fact that only he speaks Twoflower's language to warn him about his choice of lodging.
"Stranger," said Rincewind levelly. "If you stay here you will be knifed or poisoned by nightfall. But don't stop smiling, or so will I."
- For a more archetypal example, Guards! Guards! has Lupine Wonse, when he is mind-linked to a monstrously powerful and inhuman dragon and trying to act like he's a willing spokesman; he mouths the words "Help Me" to the head of the Assassin's Guild. As the assassin reflects, there's usually only one kind of help you seek from an assassin...
- In A Hat Full of Sky, when Tiffany is possessed by the entity known as the Hiver, she occasionally lets out quiet cries for help in the middle of sentences.
- A borderline variant appears in The Colour of Magic: Rincewind tries to take advantage of the fact that only he speaks Twoflower's language to warn him about his choice of lodging.
- The Executioner: In one book of the Phoenix Force spin-off series, an old contact of McCarter's calls him up to ask for a meeting at a restaurant, adding he always orders a nice beef dish there. McCarter relates to his teammates something is wrong as the man belongs to a strict Islamic sect that prohibits eating meat and "he may be a rascal who'd sell his own mother if he could get enough money for her but he's always been a devout vegetarian." They thus realize someone is using the guy to coax the team into a trap and are able to turn the tables.
- When Navaeli is coerced into being sacrificed to Silamir in Book Three of Heralds Of Rhimn, she sends Meparik a map with several cities underlined. While puzzling over this, Meparik realizes that the first letter of each city can be rearranged to spell out “HELP.”
- In one Nancy Drew Files book, a young woman who has abruptly disappeared calls the gang to assure them that she's okay, telling Nancy to "tell Ned I'll see him at the big rally on Monday". Unfortunately, Nancy thinks that she's reinforcing the message that she's all right and as such, doesn't relay the information to Ned. By the time she finally does, Ned reveals that there isn't any rally planned for Monday, meaning that the girl was trying to invoke this trope.
- The viewpoint character of The Spy Who Loved Me is a woman who has been hired to close up a motel on the last night of the season. Unfortunately, her employers have sent two men to rape and murder her, then burn the place down for insurance money. A British man turns up at the door asking for help with a flat tire, and she tells him they're closed and to go away while making the hand gesture for "come here." The man's name turns out to be James Bond.
- Subverted for laughs on 9-1-1: Lone Star when Owen is pushed to investigate a radical biker gang by the feds. He meets cop O'Brien, who had formed the gang years ago only to see them becoming something awful. The pair are brought to a meeting with O'Brien snapping that he tried to warn Owen (who's wearing a wire) not to come.
O'Brien: I told you there was a "99.9% you don't show." Nine Nine Nine? Police code? Officer down?
Owen: I'm a firefighter! Our codes are... "Fire!"
- Subverted in Angel when Lorne calls the gang from his gig in Las Vegas and tells them to be nice to "Fluffy." They're utterly baffled with Fred wondering if it's one of Lorne's odd nicknames. When they find him in Vegas and discover Lorne is being held prisoner by a mobster, he snaps at them for failing to realize he was asking for help.
Lorne: Fluffy. Fluffy the dog. The dog you don't have. The universally recognized code for "I'm being held prisoner. Send help!"
- In the Doctor Who story "Day of the Daleks", the Doctor is held prisoner and then required to reassure the Brigadier that all is well over the telephone. He finds a subtle way to secretly call for help:
"I assure you, Brigadier, there's nothing to worry about. Tell Styles that. Tell the Prime Minister. And, Brigadier, be particularly sure to tell it to the Marines."
- In Dynasty (2017), Fallon is upset when husband Liam fails to come home after tracking a dangerous lead on a Senator. Liam calls to apologize, telling Fallon it worked out "Just like your bachelorette party started." Fallon remembers her party started with her being "kidnapped" by friends. There's also how Liam calls her "sweetie" which she hates and thus figures out Liam has been kidnapped.
- In General Hospital, as Brenda is kidnapped by an associate of her ex-boyfriend, he forces her to write breakup letter to her husband. Brenda complies, but manages to highlight several letters so that the word "HELP" is obvious.
- In the Gilligan's Island episode "Little Island, Big Gun", Gangster Jackson Ferrell forces the castaways to dress up as natives outside the hut and pretend not to speak English while he holds Mary Ann hostage inside the hut for when his enemies, the Indigo Mob, show up in search for him. Mr. Howell even tries to communicate with them by saying "moolah", but to no avail, and the gangsters end up leaving the island as if having learned nothing of Jackson Ferrel's whereabouts.
- In an early episode of Happy Days, Richie is home alone when a burglar breaks in and ends up holding him prisoner. Potsie and Ralph come over to see Richie, who answers the door and tells them he can't go out with them or let them in, while drawing "HELP" with his finger on the door. But the way he makes the "p" makes it look like he's drawing "HELF", which they don't understand. The burglar gets it though, and explains that Richie is asking for help before dragging Potsie and Ralph in too.
- One episode of Mission: Impossible has agent Jim Phelps secretly held prisoner by a group of townsfolk who are actually all hostile foreign agents. When the other members of the IMF come to visit him in hospital, Phelps has been given a neuro-suppressant that keeps him from moving or speaking. Nonetheless, he telegraphs his plight to his teammates by blinking in Morse code.
- NCIS: New Orleans: Loretta gives one to Pride in "The Insider" when she tells Pride that the victim on her slab died from "Larrabee's syndrome". Captain Larrabee was an officer who died while working a hostage situation with Pride years before.
- In one Reno 911! skit, Jonesy and Garcia get tacos from a drive-through restaurant that happens to be in the middle of a robbery. They completely miss every hint that the woman at the window tries to give them. They even manage to misinterpret a note included with their order that explicitly states that there are two armed men inside (because obviously, the men working inside would have to have two arms, or they wouldn't be able to make tacos).
- In The Rookie, Nolan befriends a restaurant worker, and they bond over Nolan's past as a contractor. Later, the man calls Nolan to ask about vinyl compensation tiles being used in a diner. Nolan tells his partner something is wrong as anyone in construction would know building codes prevent those materials from being used in food-prep areas. The man then lists a set of "possible chemicals to use" to make the cops realize he's being used to set up a meth lab and organize a rescue raid.
- Parodied in a Saturday Night Live skit about the Tiger Woods cheating scandal, in which Woods and his wife are giving a press conference to address the issue. Towards the end, Tiger has written things like "Help Me", "I'm Scared" on the back of pages he's reading his statement from.
- In The West Wing, a coal company's scientist (and acquaintance of Toby) visits the White House with a colleague and takes a moment to ask Toby about his forthcoming twins. Once he's out of immediate earshot of the colleague, he whispers that he needs whistleblower protection. Toby then starts talking loudly about prospective girls' names in order to alert his assistants (all women), and passes them a note of his own — "Get Josh."
- In the description of the Poppy video "I Will Apply The Makeup", the capitalised letters spell out HELP ME PLEASE.
- When talking to Spamton in his shop from Deltarune, you get the option to talk about "Fear." Choosing this option nets you this dialogue (after which the option ceases being accessible).
Spamton: WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF??? ACCORDING TO [[Encylopedia of]] [[Being Afraid]] THERE'S NOTHING TO FEAR EXCEPT... ...can anyone hear me? Help... ...HUH??? WHAT?? NO, I DIDN'T HEAR ANYTHING JUST NOW!!!... (looking directly at the player) BUT IT SOUNDED LIKE THEY WERE TALKING TO YOU.
- In Full Frontal Nerdity, an instance of the trope appears in the Tabletop RPG within the comic; the characters encounter what seems to be an alien machine controlled by an organic brain, and their Universal Translator reports a string of bureaucratic demands plus a Help Me.
- A comedy version is seen in Ménage à 3, when Kiley meets Peggy and Matt while being carried around by the very strong DiDi. The joke here is that DiDi is seeking medical help for the lightly injured Kiley — but Kiley wants to be saved from DiDi, having just done her a huge favor. DiDi can be terribly over-enthusiastic, and doesn't know her own strength. Also, DiDi is... generously proportioned, and severely triggers Kiley's A-Cup Angst.
- Another comedy example appears in Misfile. Being a shapeshifting angel is great for disguise purposes... but there are dangers to impersonating someone who has a boss, as Cassiel finds out right before being put to work scrubbing dishes for hours.
- Adventure Time: In "When Wedding Bells Thaw", a princess who has been brainwashed into marrying the Ice King does this through her eyes.
- Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: In "The Sweet Stench of Success", Bloo is tricked into signing himself into indentured servitude after he hits it big as a corporate mascot, and being locked away by his agent. As a last resort, he drops a series of not-so-subtle hints about his treatment during a live performance, including tap-dancing "HELP ME MAC" in Morse code.
- The Oblongs: In "Milo Interrupted", when Helga is discovered to be living without parents, she is given to Ms. Hubbard to care for. She then appears at the Oblongs' door with Ms. Hubbard shilling bibles and acts outwardly upbeat and cheerful — but when she blinks, she has "HELP ME" written on her eyelids.
- Ren & Stimpy: When Red and Stimpy are door-to-door rubber nipple salesmen in... well, "Rubber Nipple Salesmen", they come to the door of Mr. Horse, who informs them that he's got plenty already. But if they have rubber walrus-protectors for sale, he'll gladly take one, holding up his walrus as creepy music plays.
Walrus: Call the poliiiiice!
- The Simpsons: In "Marge Gets a Job", Tom Jones (guest-starring playing himself) is kidnapped by Mr. Burns and forced to play a private concert for him and Marge. He keeps trying to plead secretly with Marge to get him help, but she's too preoccupied to notice.
- US Navy aviator Jeremiah Denton (later a rear admiral and US senator) was taken prisoner during The Vietnam War, and forced to participate in a press conference by his North Vietnamese captors. While on camera, he blinked the word "TORTURE" in Morse code (managing to pass it off as needing adjustments to the bright lighting), confirming to the outside world that American POWs were being maltreated.
- When Senator Leo Ryan and a delegation including several reporters investigated the Peoples Temple settlement in Guyana, everything appeared above board at first. Then someone passed a note to NBC reporter Don Harris asking for help getting out of Jonestown. Unfortunately the note-passing was seen and things slowly went From Bad to Worse.
- There's an incredibly well known case where a flight attendant spotted a disheveled woman with a very well-dressed man. Making small talk was getting nowhere and the body language from the woman and man told her something was up. She then put a note in the bathroom asking if the woman needed help. The woman responded "yes" on the note, and the attendant silently informed the cops at the airport. Turns out the disheveled woman was a victim of human trafficking and the man was arrested and the attendant is now hailed as a hero.
- A woman who was the victim of domestic violence called 911 and disguised the call as a pizza order. She made it sound like she was ordering a pizza, but she was actually calling 911 for help in a way that didn't tip off her abuser. This video documents the call.
- Another simple but classic example occurred in 2023 in South Carolina, USA: a cop pulled a car over, fortunately noticed that the driver was mouthing "Help Me", and separated her from her passenger, who turned out to have shot someone.