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How To Use Secrets To Create Subtext & Dramatic Tension

June 15, 20208 min read


If you know something about the person that you are talking to, but they don't know you know it, what does that do to you and how does that affect how you interact with them? More specifically, let's say last night you were out to dinner and as you left the restaurant, you saw your closest friend (who is married in this imagined scenario) embraced in a passionate kiss with someone other than their spouse. You saw them cheating, but they did not see you. You are now with them having coffee at a cafe. What thoughts are swirling around in your head?

  • Who was the other person?

  • What's going on in your marriage?

  • Are you getting a divorce?

  • Why would you keep this a secret from me?

  • I can't believe you'd cheat.

  • How long has this been going on?

  • Is this the first affair you've had?

  • How can you act so casual right now?

  • How can you be lying to my face right now?

  • And on and on and on.

You can quickly see that a SECRET is a harbinger of influential thoughts and those thoughts trigger emotional and behavioral responses in you, and they most definitely infect and affect your relationship.

If you have not yet watched "The Morning Show" starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell, I highly recommend it. It is an amazing series on AppleTV+ and at it's core, the entire world that this story revolves around is constructed on a foundation of secrets. And as those secrets come into the light, we join the characters in their journey as their lives are turned upside down. Some survive, while others have their life crushed out of them.

Let's look at another version of the Secret. You've been dating your signifigant other for 1 year and you are going to propose today. You have the engagement ring in your back pocket. You are holding hands and walking in the park on a Sunday afternoon. They have no idea that you were even considering proposing. What thoughts might be running through your mind?

  • Should I do this or should I wait?

  • What will they say?

  • How do I do it? Do I get down on 1 knee?

  • When and where should I ask?

  • It's only been a year, so am i insane?

  • Do they love me the same?

  • What will our parents say?

  • What will ou friends say?

  • Can I afford to pay for a wedding?

  • Am I old enough?

  • Am I ready?

  • What happens if they say no?

  • Is this our last day together?

  • And on and on and on.

Once again, you can see that with this secret, where you know something about yourself that the other person does not know, it creates conflict, anxiety, excitement, concern, fear, joy, etc and all of those thoughts, once again, infect and affect you and the relationship.

Secrets have power. They have form and shape. Some secrets take the form of a dark cloud that envelops everything and everyone. Some secrets feel and taste like cotton candy. Some secrets are like wrecking balls that have the power to destroy. Some secrets are like a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day that comfort and protect. Secrets infect and affect everyone and everything and there is no denying it.

Another amazing TV series that is based on secrets is Apple+'s "Defending Jacob" with Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell. Once again the lives and the community are ripped apart because of secrets. If you have the financial means to join AppleTV+ to see this show, I highly recommend it.

So, how do we as actors use secrets in our work. I will offer 3 thoughts here, but I am sure you can think of many more applications. The intent here is not to provide an exhaustive and comprehensive list of all possible applications of Secrets, but rather to highlight how and why Secrets can and should be used in your work to help you fulfill the Emotional, Character and Relationship Obligations of the script.


Any well-written script will have secrets and when those secrets are brought into the light, that is usually the climax of the piece. As I write this, I am thinking of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" and how Joe Keller's secret destroyed everything he held dear. I am sure that you have a least a dozen plays or movies jumping into your mind right now. Write them down so you can go back to them and think about how secrets are at the core of the plot. "Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet. Even good comedies have secrets. Musicals too. "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" by ‎Stephen Sondheim is a wonderful example of a musical comedy that has secrets running rampant and those secrets create the beautifully hysterical world we have enjoyed for decades.

It's important that you are aware of the secrets in the script and it's equally important when your characters becomes aware of the secrets. The moment that your character becomes aware of the secret is the moment that all of the thoughts that the secrets may trigger should begin. The audience should begin to sense something is bubbling under the surface the moment it's appropriate for the character to have their behavior shift. It is through the thoughts that the secret triggers, and the subsequent changes in the character's emotions and behavior, that we the actors create the beautiful dramatic tension of the sub-text. But you must be covert and subtle about these tiny shifts in your relationship to the other character. Never shine a spotlight on your process and reveal something too soon. Be smart with how your use the questions that the secret brings forth to infect and affect the relationships.


As long as what you do is perceived by the audience as being related in some way to the circumstances of the script, no one never needs to know what your process is. And if you chose to use techniques that leverage your personal life and not the imaginary circumstances of the script, and those personal circumstance create the desired outcome when you're on stage or in front of the camera, then you have done your job. Let's say you have the Relationship Obligation to create a sense of distrust and disdain for the other character. And let's say that unbeknownst to the other actor, you saw them mistreat someone on the technical crew, someone that has been kind and professional the entire production. The other actor does not know that you saw them behave like this, so it's a secret that you are harboring inside your mind, your body. Well, that secret may just be the secret you can and should lean on in order to create the palpable sense of distrust and disdain your character needs to express for the other character. (By the way, this example crosses over into another technique called Personal Reality that is also explored in the TOOLBOX). As you can see, which specific secret you choose to use can come from anywhere so long as it triggers in you the desired effect that can be translated into the character's point of view.


Above we talked about using Secrets from the script and from your actual life's reality. In this third area, we are looking to use our amazing imagination to create a secret that impells the desired response. For example, if your character is supposed to be in a state of joy, pride, excitement because they just found out about a long awaited pregnancy, but they cannot tell anyone because it's too soon to share, you can create a secret with your imagination that is 100% unrelated to the script's circumstances and use your response to that manufactured secret to fulfill the script's obligations. Perhaps you imagine you've just received a call from Robert De Niro telling you he is not only going to back your 1-man show, but he's going help you get the film version of it produced and he also wants to star in it with you. But on that phone call, he told you that you cannot tell anyone until the contracts are signed or the deal won't go through. (I wonder if any of you know what I am talking about right now and who this happened to and what play/movie I am referring to. If you do, post a comment to let me know you know the secret I am referring to.) Well, this sounds like an amazing secret that would trigger all the joy, pride, excitement needed to fulfill the Emotional Obligations the character is experiencing because of they just found out about a long awaited pregnancy.

The point here is that the Secret you use as your craft tool can come from anywhere and can be real or imagined. So long as it impels the desired response in you, it's nobody's business what Secret you use.

If you want to truly experience just how powerful Secrets can be, just pay attention in your life and become acutely aware of the Secrets floating around you every day. Notice just how your emotions and relationships shift when there is a Secret between you and the other person. Notice how you filter everything you say and hear through that Secret and how everything is effected. And once the light bulb turns on for you and you fully grasp just how Secrets can be used to create Sub-Text and Dramatic Tension, you will always look for juicy secrets to include as part of your work to bring the story to life.


I hope this post has inspired you in some small way. I look forward to reading your comments.

Bye for now,
See you inside the Toolbox.
Email: [email protected]

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