by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Are you a good liar? Do you avoid card games? Afraid your face will betray your hand? Just as we occasionally try to conceal the truth about ourselves, our characters often must do the same. Sometimes, our secrets are terrible, or at the very least embarrassing. Other times, we hide an ability we have, so that others might not ask us to use it. More than one IT professional has played dumb when a friend’s computer went on the fritz. Perhaps you’ve kept your feelings of love or hate for someone a secret. Or maybe, you hide who you really are.
As much as we might try to keep things to ourselves in real life, someone will always call our character’s bluff in the world of story. Articulating how and why that plays out is one of our most important roles as writers. Here are four cards you might consider having your character keep close to the vest.
1. THE JACK OF SPADES: the dark secret
Most people have at least one memory or event in their past they wish they could eliminate. Part of being a human being means showing our worst potential from time to time. Some of us spend our entire lives trying to make up for a mistake that still plagues us. Others choose to keep that mistake from ever seeing the light of day. Laney Brooks keeps secrets about her addiction to drugs and sex hidden from her husband and children in I Smile Back. Rudolph Abel goes to great lengths to keep what he has learned as a Russian spy in the United States under wraps in Bridge of Spies. And Spotlight’s entire plot revolves around keeping a dark secret hidden.
While these examples speak to dramatic scenarios, secrets can also make a wonderful basis for comedy. In Knocked Up, Allison tries to hide her pregnancy from her employers and friends. Steve Carrell keeps his virginity a secret from his co-workers in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Phil, Stu and Alan try to keep their buddy Doug’s disappearance a secret from his fiancé in The Hangover. Bluffing keeps every one of these characters in the game, but not for long. Great dramatic conflict arises when the characters must finally show their cards.
2. THE ACE: the rare ability
Some of our most classic heroes in cinema have been reluctant heroes. We love to see someone with the ability to change a situation avoid doing so, at least for a short time. Of course, eventually we want to see our hero dive into the conflict. But we all understand wishing to avoid such commitments when possible. Often times in stories, as in real life, the person with the greatest ability to solve a problem is the last to agree to do so. Maximus is reluctant to take on leadership in Rome and eventually battle against the forces of Commodus in Gladiator. All he ever wanted was to return to a peaceful life with his wife and child. The story gets interesting when Maximus is kept from his desires and forced to use his rare abilities.
In Dodgeball, Kate Veatch’s skills appear to only be as an accountant for the fledgling team she works for. However, she quickly reveals an amazing athletic ability that is key to helping the team win their tournament at the end of the story. Nearly all of the central characters in Mad Max: Fury Road are reluctant heroes that bluff each other until they must eventually combine their abilities to get what they want.
3. THE QUEEN OF HEARTS: the true desire
The tendency to hide our true feelings for someone we have deep interest in or hold with great contempt is common. With those we desire, we fear our feelings won’t be reciprocated, so we bluff about the hearts we hold in our hand. With those we despise, we fear that the revelation of our feelings will cause conflict we don’t wish to engage. Banky and Holden reveal secret desires at the end of Chasing Amy that puts their relationship in dire straights. In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack act on their hidden desires and then spend the rest of the story trying to deal with the fallout.
Caleb must work through the truth when he begins to desire an A.I. in Ex Machina. Nathan suspects this will be the case and uses Caleb’s feelings in his own grand experiment. Ava, the A.I., has her own wishes that she keeps secret as well. In each of these stories, the true desires of the characters involved drive the action of the plot and are only revealed when the characters have the most to lose.
4. THE JOKER: the truth about who they really are
We all wear many masks. We can easily slip one on and another off depending on our environment and those we come face to face with. Characters who bluff about who they really are, either inadvertently or explicitly, must eventually be unmasked. Wade Wilson cannot bear to unmask himself and reveal the truth to the love of his life, Vanessa, in Deadpool. He fears that what lies under his mask will be of greater significance than the love the two of them shared. In How to Be Single, Robin eventually reveals the truth about who she really is to great comedic and dramatic effect. Will wrestles with revealing the genius that resides inside him for a number of reasons in Good Will Hunting. Unbreakable, The Wizard of Oz, Dogma, The Danish Girl, and Belle all feature plots where key characters keep their true identity a secret.
Whatever secrets your character may keep throughout the course of the story only matter in the circumstances that they are revealed. The pay off of a revealed bluff only resonates with the audience if it is well-earned. The motivation behind the bluff as well as the consequences must be established early on in the story. If not, as writers we will find ourselves bluffing the audience about the cards we plan to play as the action unfolds.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.