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Heighten Tension with a Watcher

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Back in grad school, I would sometimes choreograph for the college dance company in the living room of my apartment. I’d move the furniture and face its big windows, a natural orientation for someone used to dancing in front of a mirror. One day I was lost in the flow of the movement—crouching low, leaping high—when my eyes locked on a man watching me through his window from across the courtyard.

I hit the deck, army-crawled to the window, drew the drapes closed, and hoped to never see him again.

A lesson from the School of Hard Knocks: the dynamic of a scene changes when someone is watching.

Entire fiction projects have been built around the “someone is watching” theme. In literature, think Big Brother in George Orwell’s Communist-inspired 1984 (1949). In film, the protagonist of The Truman Show (1998) thinks he is simply living his life, when in fact he is the unwitting star of a reality show broadcast to a worldwide audience. In TV, Fringe (2008-2013) survived the “Friday night death slot” by pitting an FBI team against happenings ultimately explained by the existence of an alternate universe—while its pale, bald, and definitely creepy Observers took notes on the team’s investigations.

Any story with a stakeout, a stalker, paparazzi, an anonymous protector, or a nosy neighbor (anyone remember Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched?) has a watcher. Someone standing in the wings, literally or figuratively.

In religious stories, God is a watcher. Ghosts are effective watchers. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, even the paintings on the wall serve as observers. And I can’t be the only one who has become self-conscious of her behavior while under her pet’s watchful glare.


Watchers raise tension

I happened to be reading Ken Follett’s historical novel Pillars of the Earth (1989) as I formulated this topic and came across a passage of interest. Tom Builder, a mason who was peremptorily dismissed from his last job, must seek new work by walking to the next town with his wife, teenage son, and seven-year-old daughter, Martha. They are carrying their meager possessions on their backs while Martha drives forward their most valuable investment, a pig they’d been fattening all year.

As they walk through the forest, Tom daydreams in detail about the design of the cathedral he hopes to one day build. After a couple of paragraphs comes this passage:

Tom tried to visualize the molding over the windows, but his concentration kept slipping because he had the feeling that he was being watched. It was a foolish notion, he thought, if only because of course he was being observed by the birds, foxes, cats, squirrels, rats, mice, weasels, stoats, and voles which thronged the forest.

Tom talks himself out of his natural fear reflex. After relaxing for a bite to eat by a pleasant stream the family picks up their journey, but Martha gets tired, the pig is obstinate, and both lag behind. Tom looks back and daydreams some more while waiting for them to catch up…

Are you feeling sick yet? Tom sensed a watcher, which is fiction-speak for “something is about to go very wrong.” Sure enough, while Tom stands too far away to make a difference, a man appears from the undergrowth, clubs his young daughter unconscious, and makes off with the pig. The perception of a watcher that Tom ignored, but that the reader has not, has added a tense undercurrent to Tom’s rambling daydreams as the reader looks around every corner for the coming menace.

In her novel Mother May I (2021), Joshlyn Jackson applies this kind of tension with her first line:

I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.

What does her character do? She talks herself out of it. How do you think that’s going to go?

Catherine McKenzie opens Fractured (2016) in the point of view of a watcher:

I’m still not certain what it was that made me begin my daily morning vigil at my front windows. Something innocuous, I’m sure. That’s what I’ll say later today, surely, when I’m asked.

A shadow appears to rise and fall across our narrow street. I move the lace curtains aside to get a better look. I’ve always hated these curtains. Their femininity. The way the don’t actually provide the privacy they promise.

The tension here is create by the question raised in the reader’s mind: what is this guy watching for, and why, and what is that shadow all about?

Watchers can pass judgment

As Kristy Woodson Harvey shows us in the opening of Under the Southern Sky, paintings don’t have to be interactive to do their work.

I found out my marriage was over the day my “Modern Love” piece appeared in the New York Times. The “Modern Love” piece about my thoroughly modern love with my husband, Thad, about our decision to not have children, about how we were choosing travel and wanderlust instead, living life on our own terms.

Little did I know that he was really living life on his own terms. While I was going to work every morning and he was “writing his first novel” in the dated downtown Palm Beach apartment that his octogenarian grandmother rented to us for next to nothing, he was actually playing house with a CrossFit obsessed god named Chase. In fact, when I ran home from work to show Thad my piece at nine that morning, it wasn’t Thad I found on the wood-framed yellow couch in our living room. It was Chase. I knew him because he was a hairdresser. My hairdresser. But I had never seen him quite like this: his neon green boxer briefs accenting his spray-tanned abs—both of which clashed terribly with the sofa, I might add—sitting nonchalantly under the portrait of Thad’s grandmother. She smirked inside her gilded frame, hair in a bouffant, choker pearls tight around her neck, earlobes dripping with rhinestones. It didn’t take long for me to put the pieces together.

This “watcher,” from her position of privilege and legacy on the wall of the home, lowers the hammer of expectation quicker than its subject may have, had she been living.


Watchers can define an adversary

In her first novel written in English, The Mountains Sing (2020), Nguyen Phan Que Mai anthropomorphizes the Viet Nam War in this passage, which is set in the teen protagonist’s North Vietnamese village:

The bombings had stopped. I was surprised by how blue the sky was, even when it was raining.

Grandma and I knelt on the site of our collapsed house, piling broken bricks into a pair of bamboo baskets. Our hands became the color of brick; so did our clothes. Nearby, a bomb crater was half-filled with rainwater. It gazed at me with its single murky eye.

Throughout this novel, which is chock full of conflict instigated by French colonialists and Communists and Americans, one repeatedly got the sense that it was war itself that was the enemy, and that its “murky eye” would follow these characters wherever they went in an attempt to escape it.


Watchers increase entertainment value

In this excerpt from Anna Quindlen’s Blessings (2002), a young man has just jump-started elderly Mrs. Blessing’s (POV) Cadillac, dead in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

She couldn’t say why, except that she thought he was too dim to be duplicitous, but she’d had him follow her home along the roads that left Mount Mason for the mountains.

“What is your name?” she had said, seating him at the table in the kitchen as Nadine cleaned vegetables at the sink, making a good deal of noise, as though she were playing a concerto of disapproval written for colander, knives, pan lids, and faucet.

“Skip,” he said. “Cuddy,” as though his last name were an afterthought.

“Skip is not a name for a person. Skip is a dog’s name. Skippy. I knew a boy named Quad once.”




“You deaf?” shouted Nadine.

“Mind your own business,” Mrs. Blessing called over the noise from the sink.

“I’m sorry, I thought you said Quad,” Skip had said, pushing his hair back and fidgeting in his chair.

“I did. Quad Preston. Leland Preston the Fourth. Quad. Because of the Fourth. I refused to call him Quad. I don’t care for most nicknames. What is your real name?”

He’d flushed, looked at his hands, which were cut and marked by the work in the prison laundry and the day job he had now, putting in fences. “Charles,” he said.

“Charles, are you looking for work?” she’d asked.

“Oh. Oh.” Nadine groaned and slashed at a head of broccoli with a carving knife.

Beyond her entertainment value in this scene, Nadine allows Quindlen to show us her point-of-view character’s blind spots, while also suggesting that Mrs. Blessing has an underappreciated ally.

Could a watcher raise tension in your scene?

Try it—it’s fun! If you have a scene where two people are having a needed conversation, try adding a third presence, whether it be a person, animal, or thing. Even a malfunctioning rotating fan can ratchet up the tension in a scene.

What watchers can you recall that have effectively enlivened novels you’ve read? What effect did they have on your reading experience ? If you’ve made use of a watcher in your own writing, share the benefits of doing so.


About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.


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