Is it the Demogorgon v. Voldemort? Harry v. that little scamp Mikey? Eleven v. Hermione? Mmmm, not exactly. Even though we all know Eleven could beat the pants off Hermione erry time. Sorry, Emma!
What we’re talking about, instead, is Point of View. Specifically, third person limited vs. third person objective.
Third Person Limited: we only know what’s inside a character’s head, their thoughts, feelings and emotions. We find out information right along with them and the plot unfolds for both of us – the protagonist and reader – at the same time. The tension in reading and watching something in third limited comes from waiting to find out what will happen next.
Third Person Omniscient: when the reader/viewer knows things the protagonist and characters don’t. We are sometimes transported to other scenes and to other characters so that we can see both sides of the story or understand key plot points that will move us along. The tension in reading and watching something in third objective comes from knowing what the characters do not and wondering how and when they will catch up.
Most websites – nay, the entire internet! – would say that Harry Potter is written in third limited. AND YET. Internet, I am about to disagree. Because while we exclusively know what’s going on in Harry’s head only (which is good, as head-hopping is confusing and tricky for readers to navigate, not to mention violates the rules of reading that we’re all familiar and comfortable with) what JK Rowling does so beautifully is scene hop and character hop from time to time, to create tension between what the reader knows and what Harry knows. Great example of this: the scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” where Frank Bryce, the old Riddle gardener, is murdered by Nagini. We, as readers, find this out from our omniscient narrator, not because Harry knows it or because he sees it unfold in real time. So when we get all stressy about Frank Bryce (and you do, you know you do!) it’s because you know what happened to him and you can’t wait for Harry and Co. to figure it out.
Stranger Things, by contrast, is shot in third limited. We only know what the characters know and see* and so we are fuh-reaking out waiting to figure out what’s going on. Who is Eleven? Where did she come from? Where did Will go? Will he survive? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, nor do the boys, the police, Will’s family or any of the townspeople. Our stress comes from trying to figure these things out right alongside the characters because we only see what they see. We only see Barb disappear in an instant because Jonathan is our witness. We see Eleven kill the police who come for her in Episode 1 because we watch it unfold through her eyes.
It’s because of this “WTF is happening NOW?!” that I am spend more time watching through my fingers because it’s all just so scary. I like to have a leg up on what’s coming, which is why I used to read the last chapter of every Nancy Drew book, just to make sure Nancy was going to make it out okay.
In a good mystery book, as an adult, I looooove me some third limited. I love being along for the ride. But on TV, where everything is so much more visual and loud, I’ll still happily settle for third omniscient so I feel like I know what’s coming. And, if the creator is generous with their scene hopping and sneak peeking, we might even get a sense of an ending.
Or in my case, I had to give it to myself by googling “Stranger Things, Season 1, spoilers” so I could go back to watching – still mostly through my fingers – to make sure that, like Nancy, the kids were alright.
*The only exception to this is the very opening scene where we know some shit is going down at the secret government lab. But what is said shit? What’s going down? Nobody knows!