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Give your character(s) a secret

One of the most critical dramatic elements in any play is, of course, subtext. You’ve probably heard subtext described as the things your characters DON’T say. As what happens between the lines. But how do you create subtext?

One easy way to build more subtext into your play is to give your characters a secret. Something they have to work to actively guard and protect from discovery.

Giving your characters a secret creates instant subtext because your characters can’t just come out and reveal their secret. Instead, they have to talk around it to achieve their scene objective. And in the process you’ll be creating intrigue, mystery, and suspense in the audience.

Take The Glass Menagerie for example. In the second scene, Laura’s secret is that she has not been attending her classes at Rubicam’s Business College–although she continues to pretend to study when her mother is around. That secret provides much of the conflict and suspense in the scene. This would be a much weaker scene if Laura didn’t have that secret (say, if she had simply told her mother from the get-go that she was no longer going to class).

In that same play, Tom also has a secret. He never tells his mother what he’s really doing when he “goes to the movies.” That secret leads to more conflict in the play. It also helps deepen Tom’s character, adding an unknown element to his character that makes him more interesting to the audience.

In general, there are 3 different ways to handle secrets in your plays:

1) Have a secret that the audience discovers before the other characters do. Take Iago in Othello for example. Iago’s plot to ruin Othello is a secret from the other characters, but we in the audience know what he’s up to. This adds a lot of suspense to the play because we can see Othello’s downfall coming–but we can’t do anything to stop it.

2) Have a secret that the other characters discover before we do. Laura’s secret is an example of this. Her mother discovers the truth about Laura’s skipping class before we do, so we as the audience are forced to catch up over the course of the scene. This is a great way to keep the audience involved and guessing right up until the secret is revealed!

3) Have a secret that is never discovered. Tom’s secret is an example of this. No one–not his mother, not Laura, not the audience–ever really knows exactly what he does when he “goes to the movies.” As I mentioned, this type of secret creates a lot of subtext and keeps us guessing as to the true nature of this character. It makes the character seem more mysterious and intriguing to us.

 So there you have it — an easy way to build more subtext into your plays: give your characters a secret. And once you’ve done that, you have 3 choices for how to reveal that secret: reveal it to the audience first (to build suspense), reveal it to the other characters first (to keep the audience guessing), or never reveal it (to deepen characterization).

 I hope this tip helps enrich your current work-in-progress. Keep it in mind while you’re working on your play.

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