Deceit is at the heart of every good story. Falsehoods, un-truths and blatant deceptions.
If a story isn’t a den of lies then it’s likely – somewhat ironically – to be missing the essential element that will may make the experience of that story authentic and truthful.
by Mike Jones
Does that sound a bit odd? Let me explain…
The presence – or lack thereof – of secrets and lies in a story is all too often what i observe to be absent from the films and scripts of both my students and screenplays by new and inexperienced writers. Often what is otherwise cited as missing in these cases is ‘subtext. But whilst this is certainly true, subtext is also a notoriously slippery term.
Definition of Subtext
It’s relatively easy to define subtext as that which is between the lines – what is not said between characters – but which is none the less clearly present for the viewer. However, putting that idea into some sort of tangible construct as a writer engaged in a creative process is not nearly so easy. Subtext is easy to see once it’s well written but not all that easy to write.
It’s relatively easy to define subtext
as that which is between the lines
Thus what I’m proposing is an alternative way to consider narrative subtext that perhaps makes it easier to hold onto and use as a creative narrative tool rather than a slightly abstracted concept; Subtext as a set of prescribed Secrets and Lies.
Two Categories of Subtext
Secrets and Lies can exist in a story under two broad umbrellas and we might conceive of these two categories in the same way that sound design is often considered in cinema – diegetic and non-diegetic. A diegetic sound is one that comes from within the scene and belongs there, such as the sound of a car engine as we see a car drive or the sound of a gun shot when we see a gun go off, not to mention the sound of a person’s voice as we see them speak.
Conversely, a non-diegetic sound is one where the audio does not emanate from or belong to the scene; voice over narration or a musical score being the two most obvious examples.
When we apply this idea broadly to the subtext of Secrets and Lies in narrative we see a distinction between the secrets and lies held diegetically between characters and those secrets and lies held non-diegetically by the audience observing the characters.
We see a distinction between the secrets and lies
held diegetically between characters and those
secrets and lies held non-diegetically by the audience
In the former, diegetic, sphere we have something one character knows that another does not, or something one character believes but the other does not. In the alternative, non-diegetic, sense we have something the audience knows that the character (or characters) do not (or vise versa).
From this simple observation we can construct all kinds of variations for introducing and manifesting secrets and lies in a narrative; be they at the macro-level of an over-arching story concept that’s predicated on a conceit (Breaking Bad and the secret that Walt is a drug dealer) or at a scene-by-scene level (Michael in The Godfather lying to Kay declaring that he didn’t have his brother-in-law killed). In either case the secrets and the lies fuel the dramatic tension.
Four Kinds of Subtext
So let’s ponder the variations of diegetic secrets and lies. There are essentially 4 kinds:
Character A knows something Character B doesn’t.
Character A doesn’t know something Character B does.
Character A knows something Character B doesn’t and lies about it.
Character A says something Character B knows to be a lie.
Any one of these variations invested in a scene or story adds subtext almost innately by investing an element that is not spoken or, if it is spoken, is not true. That said, what is important from a writing perspective is for the writer to orchestrate clarity about who knows what? If you don’t know what your characters know and, just as importantly, aren’t clear about what it is they don’t know, then you have very little in the way if a toolkit to build compelling subtext beyond words and actions.
What is important from a writing perspective
is for the writer to orchestrate clarity.
When mapping out characters for a story we often think in terms of what WHAT and HOW; What does the character want and How are they going to get it. Stress is exerted by every screenwriting book and script guru doing the circuit that characters must Want something and encounter Obstacles on the way to getting what they want. This may well be true but in many ways this is also too simplistic to be really useful to screenwriters in the midst of the creative writing process.
As with most of the high profile script gurus that dominate screen narrative discourse I find such preaching fine and dandy in a retrospective way – describing how good films worked – but far less useful or functional from the front-end when you’re writing from scratch. Such analysis is focused on description from hindsight and so disconnected from in-the-trenches creative process.
Wants, obstacles and active protagonists are great
but they do not, of themselves, generate subtext.
For example, you may have the clearest What and How in the world for your character with a big obstacle and high stakes and yet still have a scene that is bland and dull and entirely lacking in subtext. Wants, obstacles and active protagonists are great but they do not, of themselves, generate subtext.
This brings us back to the usefulness of Secrets and Lies as a way to tangibly motivate the writing of scenes with more sophistication than just What and How. If you can map out not only what a character wants and how they are going to get it, but also sketch what it is they Know, what they Don’t know, what secrets they have and what lies they are willing to tell – from beat-to-beat and scene-to-scene within a script – you will have a very complex array of dramatic possibilities open to you when it comes to plotting.
photo credit: Chris Halderman
Key Ingredients of Subtext: Value and Damage
Of course this leads us to the key ingredients that character-based Secrets and Lies rely on to be effective. To make the secrets and lies work dramatically we need to add two things – i’ll call these Value and Damage . The Secret has to have Value and the Lie must cause Damage (or be capable of causing damage). This might otherwise be called dramatic stakes but thinking in these more specific terms of Value and Damage may help to make the ideas they embody more specifically targeted and tangibly useful for the writing process.
For a character’s Secret to have dramatic implications it must have Value, the knowledge they hold, or withhold, from other characters must be valuable and desirable and important. The more valuable the better, the more other characters want the secret or would be affected by the secret, the more dramatic pressure is applied to the character. What must also be remembered is that the value of a secret is in direct context of the story-world the narrative plays out in.
The more other characters want the secret
or would be affected by the secret,
the more dramatic pressure is applied to the character.
Thus, for example the location of the knock-list of secret agents is a very valuable secret for Ethan Hunt to hold in Mission Impossible, a secret with implications for international diplomacy. On a different scale altogether, but every bit as valuable in the context of the story, is Don Draper’s secret past and appropriated identity in Mad Men. This knowledge wont bring down governments but in the context of the Mad Men world the secret, none the less, has immense value in being kept or released.
In terms of Lies, it is Damage that becomes a crucial ingredient. If the lie can’t hurt anyone, if it has no fallout from being perpetuated, then it is dramatically un-useful. But if the Lie has the potential to cause damage, large scale damage commensurate with the story-world, then you will have armed your character and narrative with a potent subtext explosive. The more damage the lie can cause the more effective it will be. Of course by damage we don’t necessarily mean physical damage – though that may very well often be the case – but fallout damage in a wide variety of forms.
The more damage the lie can cause
the more effective it will be.
In Pixar’s Monsters Inc. for example the big lie is that children are utterly toxic and contact with them will kill and bring down the whole Monster World. The fallout damage for this lie is in fact positive rather than negative (the revelation that children are not toxic after all), but the damage is nonetheless big in scale as the revelation of the lie inverts the monster world and changes forever the characters in it.
Likewise, working at both personal and world scale, is the film Amadeus. The big lie maintained and perpetuated by Salieri is that Mozart’s music is mediocre and not worthy of the Emperor’s attention. The lie in this case for Salieri is to himself more than anyone else, when he in fact knows the truth of Mozart’s genius. The lie can and does inflict great damage – to the world by curtailing Mozart’s career and life, and to Salieri personally as he lives out his days in guilt and despair at his own mediocrity.
Practical Tools for Creating Subtext
What we can take away from these ideas and observations should be some very practical tools for writing character-drama; give your hero a big secret, your villain a big lie (or vise versa), arm each character with a secret to keep and a lie to tell – secrets and lies that have value and possibility for damage – and then throw events at the characters that force the secrets and lies out into the open… At the heart of all great screen drama are Big Secrets and Bold Lies – plotting therefore is the events you toss at the characters to bring out and confound their secrets and their lies.
(to be continued)
Mike Jones has a diverse background in screen media crossing writing, technical production and academic research.
He is an award winning teacher, author and currently lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School. www.mikejones.tv