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.
So far, so good but what we havn’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.
Horror 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, bighting 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. 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.
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. 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.