6 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Netflix's 'Stranger Things'

Stranger Things' roaring success was the result of its blend of nostalgia, unexpected storytelling elements, an immersive plot—as well as other aspects that writers can emulate in their own writing to craft compelling tales.
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by Jess Zafarris and Cris Freese

The new season of Stranger Things is set to be released on Friday, and fans are already gearing up to spend the weekend before Halloween bingeing the next installment in Netflix's 80s-infused hit series. We've been checking out the artwork and trailers, as well as the soundtrack, which was released just the other day (and which you can listen to below as you read through the rest of this article).

Stranger Things' roaring success was the result of its blend of nostalgia, unexpected storytelling elements, an immersive plot—as well as other aspects that writers can emulate in their own writing to craft a more compelling tale. Here's what you can learn about writing from Stranger Things:

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Season 1 of Stranger Things.

1. Leverage nostalgia—but do so creatively.

Instead of rebooting an old series or movie, the creators of Stranger Things drew nostalgic music, design elements, character tropes and themes from 80s classics such as The Goonies, E.T., Alien and other films—while also creating an entirely new story. Netflix does everything it can to play up this aspect of the story; they even released a series of posters harking back to other 80s favorites (images courtesy of Netflix):

So what does this mean for writers? In Alan Moore's superhero graphic novel Watchmen, he builds a bleak and gritty tone by drawing a stark contrast between the optimism and apparent indestructibility of classic comic heroes and the violence and mortality of his own protagonists. The scenery and language of Victorian Gothic novels brim with the crumbling remnants of a courtly past. Meanwhile, Steampunk fiction draws upon Victorian technology and fashion. JK Rowling spun her iconic Harry Potter series using threads that pluck the heartstrings of those who grew up on Tolkien-esque high fantasy and classic coming-of-age stories—while still creating a story that feels fresh.

As a hypothetical example: Suppose you admire the way Poe builds suspense and dread in his short stories—leverage his techniques to create a tense scene in your next thriller novel, or use Poe-inspired symbolism to allude to his stories.

2. Do unexpected things with classic tropes.

From its coming-of-age adventure to the Alien-esque Demogorgon to Joyce's Cassandra Truth, Stranger Things is a veritable remix of classic storytelling tropes. But its writers also do an excellent job of subverting the expectations attached to those tropes.

Eleven harks back to film characters like Leeloo and E.T. and other reticent alien-like characters, and like them she holds secret abilities, but her backstory and her unique abilities make her a dynamic and interesting character who doesn't feel clichéd. Jim Hopper appears to be the stereotypical cop-show police chief initially, but ultimately takes a secondary role to the show's less-likely heroes. Plenty of stories throughout the ages—The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, just to name two—tell of hidden worlds and alternate realities. The Upside-Down in Stranger Things follows the same trope, but takes it in a new, suspenseful direction, weaving in horror elements and a darker means of "accessing" the mirrored realm.

Even if you leverage storytelling elements as old as time, you can avoid swerving into unpleasant clichés by allowing your characters to fill surprising roles and your stories to veer in unexpected directions.

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3. Don't be afraid to blend genres.

One particular strength that makes Stranger Things so accessible—even to those who generally aren't interested in TV shows in its category—is its diverse blend of genres, including suspense, sci-fi, horror, comedy and even YA. You can take advantage of this approach in your own work to surprise and delight your readers.

Granted, blending that quantity of genres can be a serious challenge, so sometimes two will do the trick. Some of the most memorable films and books owe their popularity to a hefty helping of comedy bound to another genre—think of Princess BrideHitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the works of Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore. Writing a YA book centered around teen drama? Blend in suspenseful elements for an unexpected hook.

Stranger Things also manages to reach viewers of all ages, largely due to its rich and dynamic characters of different age groups (kids, teens, adults) and genders. Moreover, it doesn't rely heavily on traditional gender roles and expectations, but still portrays each character's emotional depth and story arc in a realistic way. Many writers will tell you that it's folly to attempt to target multiple age groups in your writing, but when it's done effectively, it allows a vast array of readers to connect with your characters and doesn't limit you to people in a specific demographic or interest group.

4. It's okay to avoid explanation.

If you’ll follow me down the rabbit hole of the horror genre for a moment, sometimes the scariest monsters are the ones we don’t get explanations for. How did the curse start in It Follows? How do you break it? We don’t get these answers. We also don’t get a why. What’s the explanation for Jack Torrance going crazy in The Shining? (I’m thinking of the film, in particular.) Are there ghosts? Or is it cabin fever? What’s up with Jack appearing in the photograph from 1921 at the end of the film?

One of the best parts of Stranger Things—as of now—is the lack of explanation for the Monster (the Demogorgon—shout-out, D&D fans!) and the Upside-Down. And, really, Eleven’s telekinesis. If the Upside-Down is some sort of monstrous, alternate-world reflection of present day, then does that make the Monster some sort of reflection of Eleven? Clearly, they’re intrinsically tied, with Eleven disappearing after disintegrating the Monster. (Or, it simply took all of Eleven’s power to disintegrate him, causing her to disappear.)

So many questions, so little answers—yet. Don’t be afraid to leave your readers wondering. Sometimes the best stories are when readers can fill in the gaps. We don’t need an origin story to be terrified of a monster; nor do we always need an explanation for the rules of a world. (Although, you should be spending time creating all of these details yourself, just for reference.)

5. Your setting—and the details!—matter.

I love the setting of small towns—it adds a special creepy element to things when everyone knows each other, but there are still secrets. Think Bemidji, Luverne, Vermilion Parish, Twin Peaks, Bon Temps, Sunnydale, Wayward Pines, etc. (I’m not revealing the shows; you can look them up if you don’t know! And if you don’t, watch them!) But, a story doesn’t even need horror or sci-fi tropes to utilize the small town setting: think Stars Hollow, Mayberry, Dillon, Smallville, Pawnee, etc.

Even if you don’t recognize all of those fictional settings, I bet a couple of them stand out. Or you’re imagining others. These towns all have a rhythm to them—an expectation. They almost exist as a character themselves. The setting of Hawkins, Indiana and the Upside-Down are no different. They perfectly capture this balance of secrets in small town American, and the horror of a mysterious, sci-fi world. Blending the two together makes a great story—even if we don’t get all the answers for what’s happening in the Upside-Down.

6. Explore the depth of your cast, and flip expectations.

The depth of the cast in Stranger Things is incredible—and I don’t just mean the kids, whom I’ll touch on in a second. There’s a great parallel working between the characters of Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers—one who lost a daughter years ago and refuses to let go of her, lying to people about what she’s doing now; and one who’s desperately trying to find a son who has disappeared for no reason. The two of them seem to walk the line of sanity, as Hopper struggles with his alcoholism and Joyce struggles to cope with the loss of Will—and that no one will believe her.

There’s the scheming Dr. Brenner, whose moments acting as “Papa” to Eleven are cringe-worthy and difficult to watch. His mysterious presence creates a sort of “mad scientist” aura in the show. As does the taking and raising of Eleven as a child—which creates all kinds of mysteries. Was she born with powers of telekinesis? Did Brenner’s experiments precipitate the appearance of these powers? Why do they call her Eleven?

And, lastly, the kids. It was refreshing to see the kids band together to uncover and solve the mysteries that the adults couldn’t—and sometimes wouldn’t believe. And while it draws on some of the tropes we’ve seen in stories like It, The Goonies, and Stand By Me, something about Eleven standing in front of the roaring Monster that just survived a hail of bullet fire is courageous, inspiring, and outstanding. And she does it to protect her friends.

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