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.
Does that sound a bit odd? Let me explain…
The presence - or lack thereof - of secrets and lies in a story is all to 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
So let’s ponder the variations of diegetic secrets and lies. There are essentially 4 kinds: