Are the Duffer Brothers trolling Netflix and the rest of us?
I want you to put your Scriptshadow Imagination Cap on. Not the big one. Just the regular-sized one. This won’t require much of a leap. Got it on snug? Okay, I want you to visualize something for me. I want you to imagine a movie about four guys living in Los Angeles. Let’s call it: The Reservoir Club. Our main character – we’ll call him DAVE – likes this girl who works down at a 50s soda shop on the corner. Every weekend, the two compete in the shop’s dance competition. The place is called Dirty Mack Tim’s.
Dave’s roommate, JOHNNY, has had it rough. He lost his memory in a car accident. In fact. He can only remember things for 36 minutes at a time. So he’s started keeping tattoos on his body to remind him of the things he’s forgotten. NICK, who lives down the hall from the two, has this really fucking cool business idea. He wants to use human fat to create the single greatest shampoo in the world. He thinks it will make bank.
Oh, and let’s not forget LESTER. He’s a gimp. Walks funny. And the cops think he knows something about a recent murder. A gun-runner named Shawn Joze.
Now imagine if we lived in a world where all of this was packed into a single movie, and nobody actually complained that all of these things are giant plot points from famous 1990s movies, but rather they heaped praise on the film as a wonderful reminder of how good that period of movies was.
This is the dilemma I’m posed with when people ask me if I like Stranger Things.
Objectively speaking, the hit Netflix show does a lot of things right. The casting is top notch. The production value is great. The directing is strong. Even the writing is good. I particularly liked what they did with the plotting in the first season. They wrote 8 shows instead of the traditional streaming trend of 10. This allowed them to lay their season out like a feature screenplay, which has 8 sequences (2 in Act 1, 4 in Act 2, and 2 in Act 3). Episodes 1 and 2 became setup, Episodes 3-6 conflict, and Episodes 7 and 8 the resolution. And it works. The season never drags.
But, I mean, come on. Is there ANYTHING in this show that’s actually original?? Like even a single shot? Watching Stranger Things is like watching Steven Spielberg and Stephen King hang out and talk movies.
“Oh, that’s my shot from Close Encounters.” “Hey, they based 11 on Drew Barrymore from Firestarter. Neat!” “Didn’t I direct that exact same scene in E.T.” “Pretty sure there are about 50 scenes in here stolen from E.T. Steve old buddy.” “Cooool! Gremlins. But with a lizard!” “OMG, it’s literally like I’m rewatching Stand By Me.”
The other day, I saw an article titled, “11 Movies that Inspired Stranger Things.” I’m sorry. But if you have ELEVEN movies that inspired your movie/show, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t know about you guys. But when I release something, I want people saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Still, the show is a hit. People love it. There’s no doubt about that. And that leads us to the question of the day: What can we learn from Stranger Things that can help us write our own hit TV show?
Well, each TV show is its own ecosystem. It’s a hit for its own reasons. But we may be able to steal a few tips from the show. I’m sure the Duffer Brothers won’t mind.
For starters, they integrated a conceptual trope that’s as rock solid as tropes get in hooking viewers – a missing kid or missing woman. There isn’t a person on this earth who doesn’t feel something when a helpless human being goes missing. So this usually gets people on board right away. At least for a couple of episodes.
That means you’ve got about 90 minutes to convince the viewers to stay with you once the missing person novelty wears off. Which means you have to use those 90 minutes judiciously. What should you focus on?
If you answered THE CHARACTERS you win a Scriptshadow cookie, which you can order with extra GSU if you so please.
Those 90 pages (or 2 episodes) need to be used to create AT LEAST half a dozen characters we fall in love with. Maybe because they’re brave. Maybe because they’re flawed. Maybe because they’re mysterious. Maybe because they’re funny. Maybe because they’re in love with a girl at school and we just HAVE to keep tuning in to see if they’re going to get her. Every time you create a character you should be asking yourself, “Why would an audience care about this person?” If you don’t have a good answer, keep working on that character.
Simultaneously, you should be establishing CONFLICT inside of the characters’ relationships. A mother and son who never get along. A sibling rivalry. Two girlfriends who both like the same guy. A marriage on the rocks. A patient (11) who’s sick of doing everything the scientist tells her to do. A military vet who doesn’t trust ANYONE in town. It doesn’t mean everyone should hate each other. Storytelling necessitates that some relationships start out strong. But if you aren’t exploring fractures in relationships, it’s one less reason for us to check back in.
To demonstrate the importance of this, think about an old friend you occasionally meet with. Imagine sitting down with that person over coffee and asking how things are going. “How’s your family?” “Great!” “How’s your work?” “Can’t complain. We just won a big case at the firm” “Last time we talked, you and your boyfriend were having trouble. How are you now?” “Oh, we’re wonderful. We communicate a lot better and I’ve learned to give him his space when he needs it, which has dissolved almost all the tension in our relationship.” And so on and so forth for 45 minutes.
How bored would you be in that conversation? Life is struggle. It’s conflict. It’s obstacles. Yes there are good times, but there are always tough times mixed in. Drama should be a reflection of that. If everybody’s happy with each other in your show, I guarantee you we’ll be bored as shit.
And remember not all conflict needs to be black and white. There just has to be an unresolved nature to it. One of the most-talked about characters in the first season of Stranger Things was Barb, the awkward best friend of Nancy Wheeler. When Nancy starts getting attention from popular bad boy, Steve Harrington, Barb tries to be supportive but senses that, if Nancy and Steve hit it off, her friendship with Nancy may be in danger. So Barb warns Nancy (“He just wants to have sex with you”) and attempts to guide her away from the “dangerous” Steve. But let’s be honest. It’s not that she feels Steve is dangerous. It’s that she feels she might lose her best friend.
As viewers, it’s in our nature to want to see conflict resolved. So we’ll stick around until that happens. As old conflicts get resolved, you’ll be weaving in new conflicts. And when those conflicts get resolved, you’ll be introducing new characters, which will allow you to create conflicts in new relationships (this is what they did this season with the red-haired girl and her Karate Kid villain brother).
However, while character and relationship conflict will be a major priority, you can’t completely abandon plot. Plot, you have to remember, GIVES YOUR CHARACTERS PURPOSE. A character who must figure out how to find a missing boy will always be more interesting than the same character who doesn’t have to do anything. So you’ve got to keep introducing new plot points to get your characters out there doing things.
Stranger Things does a pretty good job with this. For those of us who’ve seen all the 80s movies, these plot points may not be all that original. But to people who haven’t, they must seem beyond cool. Eleven is cool. The Upside-Down is cool. The secret lab stuff is cool. I’m not going to fault the Duffer Brothers for using old tricks on new dogs. I’ll never forget how devastated I was when I watched Escape from Alcatraz many years after seeing the mind-blowing Shawshank Redemption and realizing that Shawshank stole the “hide the tool in the bible” trick. The Duffer Brothers are just doing the same thing on a mass scale.
There are probably other things at play behind Stranger Things’ success. It was one of the first genre streaming projects to use the television format to create one giant movie. Imagine if Stephen Spielberg was able to make a 5 hour version of Close Encounters? I think that would’ve been pretty awesome.
Stranger Things is also distinctive in that it’s probably the most charming show I’ve seen all decade. There’s something so warm and cute about it that no matter how hard you try, you can’t stop smiling. And maybe that’s enough.