It’s a classic shot in horror films—the main character walks away, and the camera pans over to the figure hiding in the shadows. Then there’s the mirror the next victim doesn’t look in, and so they miss the face in the glass. There’s a storm outside, but our heroes never see the hideous face at the window in the next flash of lightning. Or the monitor system that shows nothing untoward—until the main character looks away.
I’m sure you’ve seen other variations, in many films and TV shows. The observer unseen by the hero, the monster only we, the viewer, are aware of. It heightens the tension, gets us screaming at the screen, increases our pulse.
It’s a classic visual storytelling technique.
Note that I say visual technique. Like many film techniques, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the written word.
This has been brought to my attention in a couple of horror books I’ve read recently. One had a supposedly dead crew-member move in the image on a monitor—but only when two other characters had looked away. And the other had many scenes where characters were unable to see the ghosts following them, or even the ones standing right in front of them.
Both these books had engaging stories, and I enjoyed them—except for these moments that pulled me out of the books. Rather than increasing the sensation of fear they were supposed to evoke, they had me rolling my eyes.
But why? If the technique can be effective in film, why doesn’t it translate well to the page?
I can think of two main reasons.
The first involves point-of-view.
Most books stick to a single point-of-view throughout. Some go with first person, where everything is described as if being narrated by the protagonist (I spun around as something screeched outside, but all I could see in the glass was my own startled reflection.) Others use third person (He spun around to stare at his reflection.)
It gets more involved, of course. There are different degrees of third person pov (point-of-view). There’s the ‘god-like’ style, where the narrator knows everything, and doesn’t shy away from telling the reader. (When he spun around, he saw only his reflection, not the creature on the other side of the glass, the same one that had already tasted blood and wanted more of it.) This takes particular skill to pull off, because it automatically distances the reader from the characters.
An alternative, somewhere between this wide-angle third person pov and the intimate first person pov, is close (or limited) third person, where the narrator/writer describes what is happening, but limits that to the experiences of a particular character. This is probably the most popular point-of-view in modern books. The example of third-person above would fit here, but could be extended to include the character’s thoughts and feelings (He spun around to stare at his reflection, and the hollow pit in his stomach grew. For a moment he didn’t recognise his own features.)
Those examples aren’t brilliant writing, but you get the idea.
So what does this have to do with the ‘unseen observer’ film technique?
If a book is written in close third, then the only things that can be described are what the point of view character experiences (sees, hears, and so on). If something happens that they’re not aware of, it can’t be described. So if they close a door as they leave a room, unaware of the dark creature lurking in the door’s shadow, then the reader can’t know about this either.
So in close third, the reader shouldn’t see the face in the shadows, or the ghosts that are invisible to the point-of-view character. And when these things are described, it breaks point-of-view.
Does this matter? Isn’t this just a technicality? Maybe. But even if readers don’t know about point-of-view, they may well feel that something’s not quite right. The book just doesn’t hit home for them, although there’s nothing they can put their finger on.
There’s certain implied contracts between writer and reader. This includes promises the writer makes at the start of a story, but it also includes the style of story-telling. Changing point-of-view, unless done with great skill, breaks this contract—and so breaks the ‘reality’ of the story.
I said there were two reasons these ‘unseen observer’ passages didn’t work for me, and the second is harder to explain. Please bear with me.
Many (maybe most) writers think visually. We’re used to seeing the world around us, and are so accustomed to visual storytelling (in films and TV) that this should come as no surprise. So when we create stories, we often see them as mini-movies playing out in our imaginations. Even the dialogue is accompanied by facial expressions and other movements (which is why a straight transcription of imagined dialogue often fails to live up to the ‘reality’ in our heads.)
I’m pretty sure the writers of those two books (the ones with the passages that pulled me from the story) imagined these reveals in visual terms—the camera slowly zooming in to the monitor once the characters turned away, or maybe a slow dissolve to reveal the ghosts the characters couldn’t see. And then, they put words down to describe this scene, as accurately as they could.
I’m sure, when they read their words, they felt the same excited dread that they’d experienced when imagining these scenes—but how much of that was because of the words they’d put down, and how much was a trigger of that initial sensation?
It’s tricky, writing well. A line of dialogue can sound wonderfully sarcastic in our minds, but without the drawling voice it can come across as merely bitter on the page. An intense fight scene can become a series of abrupt sentences that don’t quite gel. That wonderful jump scare from our imaginations can become over-laboured, or over too fast to have the right impact.
When I read these problematic passages, I could imagine the writer working at them—when I should have been feeling scared for the characters. And imagining how the books were written naturally pulled me out of the stories.
I’m not saying either book was bad. I’m pretty sure I’ll read more by both writers—they can construct decent stories, and can write well. Both books have many great reviews, too.
But no writing is perfect. There are always things that could have been improved. And that’s why I wanted to spend time thinking about these moments of distraction—the more I discover and analyse problems in books, the better my own writing should be.
Of course, I also need to figure out what works well in stories. This is harder, because excellent writing is invisible—I’m so engrossed in the story that I barely register that there’s words on the page. With the best writing, I’m there with the characters, in their heads, feeling what they feel. And when something scared them, it will scare me too.