Friday, September 21, 2018

7 Writing Lessons Learned from Stranger Things

Look. I know Jonathan Byers says you shouldn't like things just because people tell you you're supposed to. That's a great rule.

But I want you to defenestrate that rule today. Why? Because I'm telling you: You should like Stranger Things. Not only is it a completely amazing TV show, but it is packed with excellent writing lessons. Haven't watched it? Too bad. We're going to spend this entire post talking about it. However, I'll be nice and add context to each point for all you mouth breathers who have never seen this TV show.
7 Writing Lessons Learned from Stranger Things

1. You need to allow your protagonists to make mistakes. Strange things is full of characters that are pretty messed up. They make bad decisions, are often unkind, and just generally have very flawed personalities. While each character has strong points and redeeming qualities, the writers never shied away from allowing their characters to be fully human and fully flawed. Mike can be judgmental, Joyce can be overly hard on her sons, Steve Harrington is pretty horrible and misguided (in the beginning, at least), Hopper started out as apathetic and skeptical, Jonathan is kind of a creep. I could go on, but I'll stop there. Now, despite their shortcomings, all the characters I just listed are completely awesome and I loved each of them. This is partly because they have great character arcs, but mostly because they are realistic, well-rounded characters that I can easily see existing in real-life. Their flaws give them a depth that is difficult to reach if you insist on making all of your characters perfect people. (Pro tip: I put together a whole list of personality flaws to help you get started)

2. Intentional information flow is key. The first season of Stranger Things feeds us very specific pieces of information at very specific time. We don't often know what is going on. Where did Eleven come from? How did she get her powers? What is this mysterious monster that is threatening Hawkins? We're given enough information to be able to guess, and, better yet, to be kept engaged. As you write your story, think carefully about how much information you want to give out. If you give too much at the very beginning, you'll lose the intrigue  factor. If you give too little, you may confuse your reader so much that they'll put the story down. However, keep in mind: Friends don't lie. So be careful about giving out fake information (or foreshadowing, and then never delivering). That's one of the reasons everyone hated this guy:
Stranger Things gif of Billy
Aside from the fact that he is a terrible person, he also has zero connection to the plot or any of the other characters. This is annoying because the first part of Season 2 made it appear as if he may be an essential plot point. But then he wasn't. Don't make this mistake.

3. Don't be afraid to create multiple antagonists and conflicts. Strange Things has two main antagonists: the Demogorgon and Papa. They are both intimidating for different reasons and are connected to the protagonist in different ways. However, they aren't the only conflicts in the story. Joyce Buyers has to fight skepticism and struggles against having another mental breakdown, Hopper is assailed by memories of his daughter, Eleven fights to find where she belongs, and Dustin is constantly creating problems with in the story out of sheer stupidity.
Stranger Things gif of Dustin giving a goofy smile
What can we learn from this? Your story needs to have more than one type of conflict, and can absolutely have more than one type of antagonist. A mixture of external and internal conflict adds depth to the characters and stakes to the plot.

4. Bigger is not always better. Yes, this is where I bash on Season 2. While Season 2 is still enjoyable, it falls far short of Season 1's ingenuity because it makes one fatal mistake: it forgot that less is more. The demogorgon in Season 1 was frightening, so they added dozens of new demogorgons in Season 2 (along with a new, giant monster). The romance was well-recieved in Season 1, so they added more love interests in Season 2 simply for the sake of squeezing in additional romance. People liked Eleven and wanted more of her backstory, so they shoehorned in Eight and her connection to Eleven. The lesson? Always ask yourself: Is this necessary? What is this adding to the story? Be intentional about your writing.

5. Multiple strong character = awesome. I can't think of many other shows that contain as many strong characters as Stranger Things. Each character is willing to fight for whatever it is they care about. Joyce fights to protect her sons, Eleven fights to save her friends, Hopper fights to uncover the truth, Nancy fights to rescue Barb, Jonathan fights to find his brother, and Season 2 Steve fights to protect all of his adopted children.
Stranger Things gif of Dustin and Jonathan walking. Caption says "[gives bad dating advice]"
Steve Harrington is the best babysitter ever.
These strong characters compliment each other rather than overwhelm. Don't be afraid to fill your story with strong, passionate, determined characters. We fans can handle cheering on more than one or two protagonists.

6. Write characters from multiple age groups. Stranger Things has middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults. All interacting. All with their own parts to play. This is actually fairly unusual in fiction, but is very realistic and has the added bonus of allowing you to reach many different age groups. Totally tubular, right?

7. Mood is important. Stranger Things has a distinct mood all throughout Season 1 and Season 2. It is suspenseful, a little scary, very 80s, but also thoughtful and humorous at points. They rarely stray from this mood, resulting in a very cohesive-feeling world and plot. Try to explain the feel of your story in four or five phrases. Can't do it? Hmmm. It would seem you need some coffee and contemplation.

Have you seen Stranger Things? What lessons did you glean from it? And, more importantly, who are your favorite characters? I love Hopper, Joyce, and Steve. Though, honestly, I'm pretty much a huge fan of anyone who isn't Billy, Billy's dad, or Mike's dad. They can go live in the Upside Down for all I care.

Related articles:
8 Ways To Use Movie Watching To Improve Your Writing
Why Writers Should Strive to be More Like Batman

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  1. Watching the finale of Season 2 tonight!

  2. I've seen Stranger Things, I love Stranger Things, and more shows need to have the variation of age groups. Thanks for this post! It was very enlightening! I hadn't even started looking at Stranger Things through writing perspective yet, to be honest.


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