The audience settles. House lights dim. The curtain opens. The stage lights come up. On the stage, an opulent den. Big cushy leather chairs opposite an ornate desk. Well-stocked bookshelves along the wall. A globe on a stand. A character enters stage left. He reaches into his waistband and pulls out a revolver. He slides open the drawer and places the gun in, and slides it closed.
I guarantee you, from that moment on, everyone in the theater is focused on that drawer. The specter of it being within his reach charges every line of dialog with a subtext of impending confrontation. A normally innocent inquiry becomes a possible trigger to pull the trigger. “What did you do yesterday?” suddenly has a dark shade as the aura of the gun raises it to an interrogation tone.
It is the same as if a wife character learns she is pregnant but hides it from her loser husband. A husband who has lost his job and the family doesn’t know. The kid who flunked out but can’t tell his parents. The fiancée, who lost the engagement ring money at the racetrack. These too are guns in the drawer. They shape the trajectory of the dialogue and the character’s actions and responses to things.
Got it? Secrets. Below the text, subtext, charge the text. Now as a book coach I have found a very common error in most manuscripts is when the writer places the gun in the drawer, but it does not affect anything. Like it was never there. Secrets are prime character motivators. Secrets yield lies. Lies yield mistrust and mistrust yields suspense. All that takes a simple scene, sequence, or book and charges it with subtext.
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