Oct 4, 2017

What Stranger Things Teaches Us About Storytelling

As fall rears its blustery head and this side of the world devours pumpkin spice lattes and football games — we’re ready for something a little more sinister. We’re ready for the Demogorgon. We’re ready for psychokinesis, The Upside Down and pesky kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.

We’re ready for the next season of Stranger Things, because it’s damn fine storytelling.

Luckily the wait isn’t long. Season two premieres on Netflix Oct. 27, 2017. But before you rewatch the first season or scan the recap blogs, let’s take a second to review what made the show truly great to begin with. Let’s review the story that dominated mainstream culture — even with its ultra-geeky sci-fi plot — with around 14 million viewers, making it one of Netflix’s most-watched shows.

Here are five storytelling elements that make Stranger Things great.

Embrace the Familiar, Even the Nostalgic

Poltergeist. The Goonies. E.T. Stranger Things references or creatively nods to just about every sci-fi film from the 1980s. Part of the show’s appeal is that it takes the audience back to the playful and charming nostalgia of 1983. The story leverages the audience’s insight and influence of this time period. It takes the audience back in time while also presenting an unimaginable story from another realm. The story doesn’t exploit the decade or genre, but proves there are a billion different ways to rearrange a familiar puzzle and tell a great story.

Compelling Characters are Critical

Monsters, the supernatural and precocious children chasing down a mystery are compelling, but what truly makes the story great is empathetic, evolving characters. Characters like Joyce Byers, Eleven and Mike Wheeler all grow and change as the story evolves. They create and escalate problems. They become stronger, more dynamic and more fallible. They fail and succeed and push along the plot. These characters prove that you don’t need a crazy plot twist to surprise your audience. You just need characters who evolve beyond tropes.

Attract the Four Quadrants

Hollywood refers to the four major demographics as the four quadrants. These include females and males, and those under and over 25 years old. If the story is going to cast a wide net of appeal, it needs to hit each audience. Stranger Things appeals to every age bracket by telling the story of courageous middle schoolers, high-school heartbreak and romance, and the daily struggle of parents and adults navigating a complex world. In short, almost everyone can relate to the characters’ experiences, even when they skew into the supernatural.

Keep the Timeline Tight & Moving

Stranger Things told a killer story — from start to finish — in eight compelling episodes. The season wasn’t an overinflated melodrama that milked viewers with mundane details and scenarios just to squeeze in another episode. The story was lean and riveting and one that kept the audience on the edge of their seat with a storyline that never got stagnant because it moved.

When the Story Asks a Question, Answer It

Character development appeals to the audience’s heartstrings, but to build trust the story must not only ask, but answer interesting questions. The answers can be revealed in a linear fashion or in a giant ah-ha moment at the end. What matters is that the audience is completely immersed in the story —  they want to find the answers to the questions — and they know they’ll be rewarded in the end. Providing answers to each question helps wrap up the story. It’s a form of storytelling that doesn’t leave the audience waiting, but wanting.

While the first season of Stranger Things ends on a cliffhanger, the audience understands a new plot is coming and secrets will eventually be revealed. Now it’s just a waiting game. It’s the excruciating period before the new season comes out where we’re all left wondering. What did the feds do to Chief Hopper? Is Eleven still alive? Because if not, why is Hopper leaving Eggos in the woods? What exactly is the slug-like creature Will spit up after Christmas dinner?

And most importantly, will the storytellers be able to maintain and expand upon an already great story?