As fans eagerly await Season 3 of Netflix hit series Stranger Things, Scott Hildreth offers three storytelling lessons and editing goals writers can glean from the show.
Sunday night at about 11:45 p.m., I turned off the TV. My wife was stacking dishes, cups and a popcorn bowl into the dishwasher. “I think this is what the kids call binge watching.”
We had spent the better part of two weekends watching the Netflix show Stranger Things. It was a fantastic experience.
We aren’t in our 20s any longer, so we struggled to stay up past midnight. We have jobs, so we couldn’t push through two seasons nonstop. However, we did manage sneak in a couple of episodes throughout the week. Then, on Saturday, after we finished yard work, we parked on the couch and plowed through the rest of the seasons. We have talked about the characters and scenes. We have used funny quotes in conversation and have recommended the show to others.
As I thought about this experience, it hit me: This is the passion we want from those who read our stories. We want them to push past bedtime, snatch a chapter here or there, and fight sleep to finish. In today’s reading environment it is more important than ever to keep readers hooked on our stories.
Ebooks and E-readers are convenient, but they create problems for the author — hundreds of other stories are one simple click away. If our storytelling allows the reader’s mind to wander, she will choose another book, and we may never get her back. It is imperative that we keep readers as hooked into our stories as my wife and I were when we binge watched Stranger Things.
What was it about Stranger Things that kept us from searching out another show? Why were we willing to put things on hold until we finished the seasons? As I thought about this experience, from the perspective of both a writer and consumer, I came up with three ideas.
1. Design chapters with the purpose of keeping the reader hooked.
Stephen King says that the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, “the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.” (SK, On Writing, p.134). This is true for the writer; no need to argue with the King. But, for the reader, the chapter is the basic unit. Most readers think one chapter at a time; as we read, we focus on the chapter endings. I even have my kindle set to show how many minutes are left in the current chapter. Because of this, we need to build chapters with the reader in mind.
The producers of Stranger Things developed each episode as a chapter in the story. Each ended with a scene that left the viewer wanting more. “Wait, we can’t stop here. One more show.” If it was late, we would say, “Let’s just watch the first five minutes of the next show, so we will know what happens.” You know what happened next; the opening scene sucked us in. One of us would say, “We can’t quit here. Ok — we have for just one more show.” An hour later, we faced the same dilemma.
The episodes didn't all end with cliff-hangers. The characters were not always facing mortal danger. To be honest, it would have been easier to turn those off. We are smart enough to guess that the heroes wouldn’t die.
Instead, each chapter ended with a shift in the storyline or lingering questions. Something piqued our curiosity. We did not keep watching because we cared about the characters. We had questions and we needed an answers; something gnawed at us and wouldn’t let us walk away from the story.
To keep readers committed to our stories, it is crucial that we build chapters with these goals in mind. We need to remember that each reader has dozens of options. The chapter break, end of one and start of the next, is the perfect place to set the hook.
1) Look at the last pages/scene of the chapter and ask, “What is on this page that will compel my reader to turn the page and begin the next chapter?”
2) Look at the opening page of the next chapter and ask, “What is in the opening scene that will push the reader to keep going?”
2. Keep the tension by maintaining both macro and micro conflicts.
The mortal sin of fiction writing is creating a peaceful world. As James Scott Bell says, we must push our hero through a “doorway of no return,” (JSB, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure) that moment when he is unable to go back to normal life. The rest of the story is made up of his struggle against various obstacles to achieve a goal.
In Stranger Things, the heroes are searching for a lost friend and stumble into a situation that, if left unsolved, would destroy their town. This is their macro-objective — the big crisis that must addressed for the story to end. We need to know, will they make the rescue and save the town?
But, as I think about what keeps a reader, or viewer, pushing through the story for hours, it is usually more than a single macro-conflict. The successful story-teller creates hooks throughout the story by introducing micro-conflicts. The author of Stranger Things included conflicts between characters, sexual/romantic tension, lousy weather, internal doubt, and even unconnected “bad-guys.” These micro-conflicts kept the viewer worrying about how each would resolve and how they might affect the larger struggle. Sure, the overall problem pushed the characters ahead and this is what makes the story. However, readers have short attention spans and many of options. Sometimes the macro-conflict is too large to hold their attention. As we write, it could be helpful to include a string of micro-conflicts to keep the reader engaged and concerned.
As often as possible ask, “What micro-conflict can I drop-in, and carry across several chapters, to keep the reader hooked.” Look at relationships, character flaws, new characters, or even back-story issues.
3. Don’t resolve too soon — force the reader to wonder how things will work out.
As we got to the last episodes of Stranger Things, the macro-conflict seemed worse. The micro-conflicts continued to swirl, and some had crept into the main storyline. I remember saying, “How are they going to tie up all these loose ends?” When questions like this gnaw at the reader, there was no way she is going to stop reading.
We want our readers to ask similar questions as they near the end of the book. We want them looking at the page count, or the Kindle percentage, and asking, “How is she going to get out of this mess in the last 10% of the book.”
Of course, we want a satisfying ending, an honest conclusion. We don’t want to introduce deus ex machina, a hidden clue, or unknown character. But, short of these cheap endings, we want to hold the tension until the last possible moment. In many cases, the reader can anticipate the ultimate ending. Most know that the detective will solve the crime and that the zombies won’t eat the whole army of good guys. But we can keep them wondering by whom, how, or at what cost, will the resolution come.
Rather than imagining the story line like an airplane, strong take off and gradual landing. Stories that hook readers and force them to stay up late, are more like roller-coasters — click, click, click, and a sudden drop to the end.
Ask, “How am I maintaining tension? Can I legitimately push this resolution later without cheapening the story?”
While we are on the topic of story resolution, keep in mind that the real power of a show that people binge watch is the transitions between seasons. The story resolves, but we have achieved something special when we create a moment at the end of the book that signals there is more to come. This pushes readers back to their favorite bookstore, or website, to buy our next book.
We must remember that the reader has many options. The screen and the page are different mediums, but we can learn a lot about storytelling from film-makers and TV shows that people binge watch. We do well keep our readers wanting “just one more chapter…” This build loyalty and a readership that keeps us in business.
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