Writing Lessons from Stranger Things

When Stranger Things started garnering hype on the internet in 2016, I sent a text to my mom telling her she should watch it. She enjoyed shows with vague paranormal/alternate universe stuff like Fringe, and from what I could tell, Stranger Things was right up her alley. I wasn’t all that interested. I was midway through the first semester of my first year of college, and I preferred to spend my limited free time writing or gaming.

And then within a week of me telling my mom to watch Stranger Things, she messaged me and insisted that I give the show a try. And because I’m a good child (most days, at least), I listened to my mother.

Whatever I thought Stranger Things was going to be, it was so much better.

The Netflix Original series, created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, takes place in 1983 in the small, midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana. The premise is simple enough: a young boy vanishes without a trace, and mysterious events begin taking place around the town. Combining an engaging sci-fi world with 1980s nostalgia set Stranger Things apart, but beyond that, the show features strong writing, dynamic characters, and a fascinating story.

With Season 3 of Stranger Things being recently released, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the show’s first season and analyze what we can learn from it.

Beware – Spoilers for Season 1 of Stranger Things below!

Lesson 1 – The Setting is Important to the Plot

As I mentioned, Stranger Things takes place in a small midwestern town during the 1980s. Unlike many other modern TV shows, this setting has a major influence on the plot. Burn Notice could have happened in Seattle instead of Miami and Psych could have been set in Boston instead of Santa Barbara with few changes to either, but take Stranger Things out of 1980s small-town America, and the story begins to fall apart.

Hawkins is a typical small town, where everyone knows everyone. Strange things (excuse the pun) simply don’t happen here. If the show took place in a more populated environment, or perhaps a more dangerous and unfamiliar one, we wouldn’t see Will Byers biking home alone at night, and without that, he likely would never have disappeared into the Upside Down.

ST Hawkins

Even more important, however, is the decision to set the show in 1983. Apart from triggering nostalgia for many viewers, the time period allows certain things to happen that would be obstacles if the show were set in modern-day America. The easiest difference would be technology – with parents able to check in regularly via cell phone, the children wouldn’t be able to get up to the same kind of shenanigans as they do. Beyond that, while the Cold War doesn’t play a major role in the story, it does affect the attitudes of certain characters. Dr. Brenner claims that Eleven, the escaped telekinetic girl, is a Russian spy, and furthermore, Mike’s parents buy into the lie because plays to their fears of the USSR.

ST walkie talkie
Without cell phones, the boys communicate via walkie-talkie

The takeaway: Don’t think of your setting as simply a backdrop for your story, but consider how the time and place affect the events of your story.

Lesson 2 – Realistic Character Growth

I’ve already talked about character arcs in my “Writing Lessons from Avatar: The Last Airbender” post, but I’m going to do it again with a slightly different approach because they’re important.

Steve Harrington. I hated him the first time I watched Stranger Things. I hated him a little less the second time. Now that I’ve watched the first season for the third time through, I’m starting to appreciate his character arc.

You probably knew a Steve at some point in your life – good-looking, charming, kind of a bully, can get away with anything and has never had to suffer the consequences of his actions. That’s how we see him through the first few episodes, but he does have a turning point about midway through the season. After seeing Nancy with another boy, Jonathan, and assuming the worst, Steve and his friends spray paint an obscene message on the marquee of the town’s theater. When Nancy and Jonathan confront him, the two boys get into a fight, and although Steve manages to elude the police, his injuries still serve as a consequence.

Realizing he screwed up, Steve returns to the theater to clean up the marquee, then goes in search of Nancy to apologize. Unfortunately for him, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, because Nancy and Jonathan are currently trying to capture a monster from another dimension, but when Nancy tells him to leave, he doesn’t. Steve gets halfway to his car, but decides to return in time to help the other teens fight the monster.

stranger things trio
Steve’s trying, and I guess that counts for something.

At the end of Season 1, Steve still isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But character growth takes time, and for him, his actions towards the end of the season are a step in the right direction.

The takeaway: Show your characters growing over time, and maybe throw in some internal conflict. A sudden change in character is unrealistic and unsatisfying.

Lesson 3 – Connecting diverging plotlines

There are three major plotlines to the first season of Stranger Things: Joyce Byers and Chief Hopper’s search for Will and discovery of a government conspiracy; Mike, Dustin, and Lucas’s search for Will and their discovery of Eleven; and Nancy and Jonathan’s hunt for the Demogorgon (with a little high school drama thrown in). For most of the season, these three plotlines exist independently of each other, but only when they come together can the story be resolved.

When Jonathan is arrested after his fight with Steve, he and Nancy are able to combine their knowledge with Joyce and Hopper’s to better understand the situation. Having joined forces, Jonathan figures out a way for them to contact Mike and his friends, and Hopper arrives in time to save the kids from the government’s forces. With the three groups together, they come up with a solution to locate Will using Eleven’s powers and rescue him from the Upside Down.

ST E7
With help from Nancy and Jonathan, Hopper is able to locate the kids and rescue them just in time.

The takeaway: If your story involves multiple plotlines, consider how they will influence each other and/or come together at certain parts of the story.


Have you watched Stranger Things? What have you learned about writing from it? Who are your favorite characters?

And hey, let’s keep the comments free of Season 3 spoilers! There are still a lot of us (myself included) who haven’t seen it!

Until next time!

 

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