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5 Screenwriting Tips I Learned From Stranger Things

When the Duffer Brothers released Stranger Things® on Netflix, no one could have predicted the massive cult following the show would receive. With the first episode airing July 15, 2016, "Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers," Stranger Things' mix of 80s nostalgia and horror was nominated for Best Drama for the Critic's Choice awards in its first year. Since 2016, the show has been nominated or has won several Screen Actors Guild Awards, and took home 2017's award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.

Stranger Things on Netflix is a mix of 80s nostalgia and horror
Stranger Things' Joyce Byers, Jonathan Byers, and Nancy Wheeler waiting to hear from Will Byers in "the upside down."

A dynamic mix of 80s classics like Firestarter, The Goonies®, E.T.®, Stand By Me, and A Nightmare on Elm Street® (among others), Stranger Things combines humor, horror and childhood in a way that hits home for its audience—especially an audience steeped in 80s pop culture. As one of my favorite examples of how to write an original screenplay, here are five screenwriting tips I learned from Stranger Things.

1. Introduce characters through conflict

Right at the beginning of the first episode of the series, audiences of Stranger Things meet an ensemble of major characters that are all uniquely important to the story. We're first introduced to the boys who would be the main cast. Will Byers, Dustin Henderson, Lucas Sinclair, and Mike Wheeler are playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons™ and there is immediate conflict in the campaign they are playing. This back-and-forth dialogue between the boys sets up their characters perfectly, allowing the audience to immediately determine which character is the comic relief, leader, follower, and pragmatic one.

Throughout this first episode, all of the major characters are introduced in this way—through a point of conflict with another major character. These conflict-heavy pairings not only move the plot forward in an interesting way, they allow the audience to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each character through a simple moment of conflict with another (or others). In that way, we're given a lot of characterization in a short amount of time, which also helps create immediate empathy for them.

Stranger Things on Netflix is the story of a group of boys who encounter a real-life monster
Conflict assists in characterization in the opening scenes of Stranger Things

2. Don't be afraid of redemptive character arcs

No doubt, Stranger Things starts out with some very fallible, imperfect heroes. Chief Hopper is a great example, as we first see him in the role of a small-town cop who has too many vices, too early in the morning. We get the feeling that he's a wounded man from the first episode, and later find out that he lost a young daughter and is still grieving that loss.

His character arc, however, is one of the most redemptive in the series. From these early scenes of Chief Hopper in the fog of depression and addiction to the most recent scenes at the end of season 2, his arc has been one of unlikely hero to decided hero to the Byers family (and Joyce in particular). He then redeems himself further by becoming a surrogate father for El (Eleven), who he protects like his own daughter.

El is another character with a redemptive character arc, as she is ultimately responsible for the Demogorgon's presence in Hawkins, yet saves the town (and Will Byers) from the same monster. In this dual role of cause and savior, El's motivation to save her friends is believable and effective as a turning point in her character's role. She is angry at the people who experimented on her and achieves justice against Hawkins Laboratory by the end in destroying its research and forcing it to shut down at the close of the second season.

Then there's Steve, who is almost unlikeable at the beginning of the series but becomes one of the most heroic figures of the plot by the end of season 2. His surrogate parenting of Dustin wins him huge empathy points among fans, not to mention his honest care and concern for Nancy, despite their break-up.

Another subtler, yet highly redemptive character arc, is that of Will Byers, whose character became much more important in season 2. In season 1, we see him as a scared little boy whose role is mostly offscreen, and a victim of the evils Hawkins National Laboratory was bringing into the area. However, by the end of season 2, he has survived a complete possession encounter with the terrifying new monster, the Mind Flayer, and is the only one who still understands at the end the possibility that the monster is not as far away as it seems. In this sense, his character arc from scared victim to courageous survivor is one of the most redemptive arcs of the series.

Will Byers has a redemptive character arc on Stranger Things
Will Byers' character arc moves from him being a scared victim to a courageous survivor.

3. Sometimes less is more with dialogue

During most scenes involving El, her dialogue is limited at best (sometimes humorously so). However, through great screenwriting and casting, the writers of Stranger Things managed to reveal a lot about her character with very few words used. Her meaningful glances, the powerful image of a nosebleed following her use of telepathic powers, and the way she participates in the narrative without saying much at all bring to mind similar characters, such as E.T. or Charlie (played by a young Drew Barrymore) in Stephen King's Firestarter.

This limited dialogue forces the audience to really focus when a character does speak, and to watch closely the physical responses that character gives. In this sense, the character maintains a sense of mystery and importance, simply by saying as few words as possible.

4. Don't forget the power of kids to carry a story

The movies that Stranger Things draws on are predominantly stories of kids in a world with mostly absent adults. These depictions of childhood friendships appeal to the nostalgic viewers who remember the confusion and harder lessons involved in growing up, particularly when adults were not available or were overworked. It another sense, it reminds viewers of a time much different than the present, when kids could roam freely on bicycles and enjoy a level of autonomy that modern-day parents find difficult to grant.

There is also an increased emotional appeal when a story is narrated through the perspective of children or adolescents. One of the screenwriter's first goals is to convince the audience to feel empathy for the characters introduced, particularly the main characters. This goal is easily accomplished when the main characters are children or adolescents. Adults watching the story are automatically empathetic to most child characters out of a sense of protectiveness. Add to that the nostalgia and emotions involved with remembering what it was like to be in that child's place, and a screenwriter invites a powerhouse punch of empathy right from the beginning.

Finally, telling a story from a child's point of view helps increase the horror aspect if that is the genre you're aiming for. Seeing a monster as an adult is one thing—seeing it from the point of view of a child puts us right back into that primal state of fear we felt as children facing an uncertain world, and the tension is increased.

Stranger Things uses narrative from kids' point of view for dramatic effect
Stranger Things' use of the preteen and adolescent points-of-view add emotional appeal to the story (and increase the horror effect).

5. Don't be afraid to mix genres

I've written often about Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! Series, and Stranger Things is a great example of how a genre-mixing/genre-bending screenplay can work. Anyone who is familiar with Snyder's ten "story patterns" or "every story type ever told for film" will immediately recognize Stranger Things as falling in the "Monster in the House" category.

According to Snyder, when it comes to story patterns, Monster in the House is one of the oldest….and most primal. He also notes that in order for a film to fall into this category, there should be three components: 1) a monster, 2) a house, and 3) a sin.

Stranger Things' Demogorgon definitely qualifies as a monster. Much of the characters' interaction with the monster takes place in Joyce Byers' house. And finally, there is the awful truth of experiments on children that were taking place in Hawkins National Laboratory, under the guidance of Dr. Martin Brenner (the sin).

But wait…Stranger Things also has elements of Snyder's "Buddy Love" pattern (between Mike and Eleven), "Golden Fleece" (in which a team sets out on an adventure and are transformed in the process), and even "Whydunit" (as Chief Hopper searches for the missing Will Byers and his search takes a dark turn). The Duffer Brothers' genre-mixing storytelling approach keeps audiences engaged in Stranger Things for a large part simply because it reminds them of so many other great stories within those genres that are represented.


Ultimately, Stranger Things is a lesson in what can go right in original screenplays when you draw on nostalgia—particularly pop culture references, a soundtrack reminiscent of the technology of the 80s, and references to the childhood of an audience that likely still pines for it in many ways. Most importantly, it gives us characters we care about—set in a time we feel a lot of emotion towards. It's this extra appeal of emotion that makes Stranger Things the valuable lesson for screenwriters that it is. So, don't be afraid to make it part of your screenplay.

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