Subtext: Secrets and Lies (2)

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.

by Mike Jones

(continued from Part 1)

So far, so good but what we haven’t touched on yet is the other kind – those non-diegetic Secrets and Lies that are held by the audience. It is these that bring an even greater spectrum of complexity to notions of narrative subtext.

Subtext in Horror

a story of lifes and lines( and lies),the life threadHorror films give us the clearest insight into the power of secrets and lies held with the audience. The scares and frights of a horror film are predicated on the viewer being positioned in one of two states – either they know More than the characters know, or they know Only what the characters know.

In the later, when the monster leaps from the shadows, we jump as the character jumps in shock and surprise. In the former, by contrast, we already know the monster is around the corner waiting and we watch, biting our nails in dread and suspense, as the ignorant character – oblivious to the secret we as viewers are forced to keep – heads blindly into the danger.

Horror films give us the clearest insight into
the power of secrets and lies held with the audience.

Both forms are very effective and great horror films move the viewer consistently through these different positions letting them in on the secret sometimes, keeping them in ignorance at others – ensuring a complexity of thrills.

The Audience Knows – Two Forms of Subtext in Horro

063/365: When The Truth Comes Out...From this simple basis we can extrapolate a complexity of possibilities for how and when the audience may be told a lie or given a secret to hold. As with diegetic secrets and lies, we can view a number of ways they can be perpetuated with the audience which broadly may be seen to reside in two broad forms:

  • The Character knows something the Viewer does not.
  • The Viewer knows something the Character does not.

The first of these is the most obvious and results in the classic reveal often situated at key turning points in the plot. Here the viewer is made aware of new information that forces them to re-evaluate what they previously knew or believed. Whilst this may seem simple it is in fact a direct orchestration and manipulation of what the viewer knows by the writer at any given point in the story’s timeline.

The writer must clearly conceive of what
the viewer doesn’t know that the characters do.

To make such reveals work the writer must clearly conceive of what the viewer doesn’t know that the characters do in order to make the reveal of the conceit plausible and authentic. Scripts that fail this test and do not properly plan or articulate the secrets and lies to the viewer in the writing process, fall foul of Deus Ex Machina where a plot twist or reveal rings as untrue or overly contrived.

Examples of Subtext where The Audience Knows

ZarkoDrincic - Good bye!Excellent examples of this kind of conceit with the viewer can be found in virtually any Hitchcock film but more contemporary films such as The Sixth Sense also demonstrate how effective this lie can be (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen The Sixth Sense). The film’s reveal that the protagonist himself is actually dead – and indeed has been almost the whole time – is a tremendously effective ending; not because it’s a surprise but because the viewers all slap their foreheads as they realise that ‘it all makes sense’ and indeed that they perhaps should have seen it coming all along. The lie is authentic because it was carefully planned, each scene knew the truth as it was written and hid that truth carefully from the viewer as a secret.

Excellent examples of this kind of conceit with the viewer
can be found in virtually any Hitchcock film.

Such planned secrets to the audience also form the basis of complex-narrative stories such as Memento and The Usual Suspects which are films that build their entire dramatic concept on the ‘unreliable narrator’ and the grand ruse where the viewer is forced to recognise the lies they had previously accepted as truth.

The second of the two – that the viewer knows something the character does not – is consistent across all genres of screen narrative. Whether it’s at a macro level such as Titanic where the audience is fully aware of the ‘secret’ that the iceberg is coming while the characters are oblivious; or at a scene-by-scene level such as in the opening of Jaws where we have already seen the shark waiting and know the danger long before the first victim gets wet. We know the secret and we watch in horror that we cannot stop the inevitable.

We know the secret and we watch in horror
that we cannot stop the inevitable.

man with video camera
photo credit: wwworks

Similarly we might look at numerous scenes from Battlestar Galactica where the viewer knows which characters are in fact Cylons whilst the other characters remain oblivious. The audience is positioned to be the custodian of the secret and the drama plays out as an orchestration of not just What the viewer knows but When they know it.

Likewise in Dexter the audience knows Dexter’s secret life and so whenever we see Dexter interact in a normal way with his police colleagues we watch with a rich vein of subtext based on the dark secret we hold.


Whether the secrets and the lies are held between characters or with the audience the fact is that without secrets and lies your story will often be starved of subtext and tension or else be reliant on far more verbose and less effective forms of tension such as car chases, pointed guns and spectacle.

As a tool, investing your characters and your story at the planning stage with specific Secrets and Lies, that in turn have Values and Damages, will generate tangible potential for rich subtext before you even write the first scene.

-Mike Jones

(read the first part here)

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.
Creative Commons License photo credits: Cameron Cassan, Zarko Drincic, Diamond Farah, tommy the pariah

2 thoughts on “Subtext: Secrets and Lies (2)”

  1. Wow – Great article Mike!

    I’m not religious (quite the opposite, as it happens, more into Science) but actually I consider The Bible (both Old & New testaments) to be among the greatest horror stories ever written.

    An example: The Book of Job.

    As per your (excellent) points about (say, Hitchcockian) suspense: the Audience knows that the characters of God and Satan have had this bet… and yet the character of Job is `kept in the dark’ about this.

    Then `the horror begins’ for Job – and the Audience is thinking about the story on at least 2 levels:
    1) from the supernatural guys’ POV (God, and The Other Shiny Red Dude with the Horns etc) and
    2) from Job’s POV.

    (Also possibly – a third level, ie – if they are of a Lot of Faith [as opposed to Oh Ye of Little Faith, or Lotta Fagina from Austin Powers], and are possibly (even subliminally/subconsciously) comparing `Job’ – and how he `performs’ during the tasks he is unwittingly set, to: themselves.)

    To get right into the meat of characterization for a classic villain trope, check out this awesome doco:
    The History Of The Devil

    Anyway, great post Mike…!
    (I’ve had some horror feature films I worked on as a writer, produced… all your points are bang-on IMHO)

    JT Velikovsky
    High ROI Film/Story/Screenplay Consultant


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