Become a Hero Storyteller: 7 (Stranger) Writing Lessons from a Hit Show 'Stranger Things'

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7 Stranger writing lessons from Stranger Things (Netflix)

Everybody is raving about the latest Netflix offering called Stranger Things, and rightfully so. The show tells us a story about one very ordinary small town set back in nostalgic 80s. But, when a boy gets lost, many darker secrets rise to the surface, and this small town become torn by shocking events.

This isn’t a Stranger Things review, though. Similar to what I did with the post about The Jungle Book movie, I found several good points that you can take from this exceptional show and apply to your storytelling.

So if you want to become a better writer just in 15 minutes, read on to learn 7 stranger writing tips from Stranger Things.

But tread ahead carefully…

…as there might be monsters lurking…

…somewhere between the shadows of your writer’s confidence.

Danger of spoilers! Some of those nasties are ahead (though I tried to write as vague as possible in case you still didn’t watch the show, for some stranger reason).

1. Tap into your readers’ nostalgia

Stranger Things writing lessons. Winona Ryder looking at lightbulbs

Stranger Things. Winona Ryder is enchanted with colorful lights

People love to forget about the habitual, dull reality they see every day and dive into some other setting, be it a fantasy land full of magic, a cybernetic world of future ruled by all mighty corporations, or not so distant past with a charming feel to it.

The Duffer Brothers who created Stranger Things definitely know the power of nostalgia. People often say there was a time when the grass was greener, the sky was clearer, women were prettier, men were stronger, etc. They miss the past they remember or maybe didn’t have the chance to experience because they were born later but heard so much about it.

As much as people love to wonder about future, they love to go back in time to some preciously calmer and simpler moment in history. Perhaps they love going back even more than traveling to the future.

Carefully research the period you’re trying to conjure up before you readers’ eyes and build it with details and emotions, layering the perfect picture. If you are successful, your readers will want to stay with your book forever.

2. Add allusions that enrich your story

Stranger Things writing lessons. Eleven in sensory deprivation tank

Stranger Things. Eleven having a good time in a sensory deprivation tank

I just love making allusions to other popular books, movies, shows, games, or even historical events or fast food restaurant (that’s right, in my fantasy book, there’s a place even for McDonald’s). And whenever I see the work of entertainment that uses allusions in the same way, it makes me thrilled beyond words.

Watching Stranger Things, you notice a wide variety of allusions:

  • hanging on the walls are posters from popular movies of those years, like The Thing, Evil Dead, and Jaws,
  • a kid who takes the ‘weirdo’ possessing paranormal abilities on a bicycle ride (which reminds us of Spielberg’s T., of course),
  • the characters are listening to well-known songs of that era from Foreigner and The Clash,
  • when the sheriff talks to an autopsist about the drowned boy, the autopsist says he was surprised that they called him in the middle of the night. He explains: “Because, you know, that’s the common case, not like with J.F. Kennedy.” Here it is, another allusion, this time to the big historical event.

And that’s just a few examples I can think of off the top of my head.

So why do you want to use allusions in your story? Because it adds the depth to the world you’re building. Your story gains multiple levels, becomes rich with subtext and notions. When reading such a story, you believe that you’re experiencing something true, that’s connected to the world you know, even if imaginary.

Those aren’t just some flat pictures moving behind the glass wall. Those are real people who read the books you know, who listen to the songs you heard, who might as well live in the neighborhood.

3. You should kill sometimes, even a hero

Stranger Things writing lessons. Winona Ryder

Stranger Things. Winona Ryder’s axe is ready for the monster

Oh no, I’m not suggesting a crime here.

This Stranger Things lesson teaches us writers that we shouldn’t be afraid of killing off our characters, especially beloved ones.

It doesn’t mean that you need to be a killing junkie like George Martin, though. But a sudden death or two can add this feeling of risk to your adventure. After all, what kind of adventure it is if there is no risk to be killed, or eaten by a monster, or be lost in some dark parallel dimension with a creepy snake-like thing down your throat?

Pay attention to who you kill, though. A death of some third-plane character like a bartender that just served your hero a drink won’t affect your readers nearly as much as the death of your hero who was just poisoned by that drink.

4. Make your characters alive and let them change

Stranger Things writing lessons. Trio of friends

Stranger Things. Trio of friends

We all know how important it is to take your characters on a journey that will change them somehow. They can become stronger or weaker, wiser or even more naive than they were. They can evolve from an ordinary gardener into the bravest knight – or they can grow darker and lose any hope for happy ending.

The point is, they must change somehow, they can’t be static. Because that’s what people like: watching a story that affects the characters at the center of it.

And Stranger Things never forgets about it.

In the pilot episode, we watch four kids playing Dungeons & Dragons and confronting Demogorgon, a hideous creature they’re very much afraid of, though it is only a plastic figurine on the board.

As the story unfolds, the kids learn about other dimension where their friend disappeared to. And in order to save their friend, they (three of them now) have to battle the very much real monster in the real world.

Stranger Things writing lessons. Eleven

Stranger Things. Eleven is about to use her powers

Do you see how brilliantly this works? Thanks to this parallel between the tabletop game’s imaginary trouble and the real world trouble, we can notice how the ordinary boys, who only played heroes in their games, grow stronger and become a solid rescue team where each of them is the warrior of his own unique abilities.

In fact, they become so brave they are no longer afraid to face the troubles in the real world. But in the beginning, they couldn’t stand up to those two bullies in the school, let alone fight some creature from another world!

But in Stranger Things, these boys are not the only ones who change.

Eleven used to startle from any rustle and didn’t trust anyone. She was also afraid of her special powers. Throughout the story, she learns to trust her new friends and finds confidence in using her powers to save them.

Nancy takes off her rose-colored glasses and stops looking at the world through the eyes of a naive schoolgirl. Her best friend is missing, and when she finds out that it was the monster that took her, she arms herself with a gun.

Stranger Things writing lessons. Nancy with a gun

Stranger Things. Nancy trying out her new gun

After all she experienced, going to another world and back, almost dying, then finding out some bad guys are chasing her brother and probably mean him harm, Nancy comes to understanding that when the world you’re used to is crumbling, the family is the only thing that keeps you sane and alive. She comes to peace with her little brother and finally becomes friends with him.

Here’s a quick scene that highlights how Nancy changed (and in my opinion, does it the best): Nancy and her brother Mike are going to fetch some equipment to send Elle to another world and they’re stopped before the locked storage door. Without a moment’s hesitation, Nancy commands her brother to step back, then grabs a rock and with a single blow breaks the lock.

This scene demonstrates perfectly how Nancy changed from a naive schoolgirl thinking only about studying and her boyfriend to a strong young woman who is ready to do anything to rescue her friend from the clutches of the monster, and there’s no walls or locks that can stop her now.

5. Build a mystery with a balanced pacing

Stranger Things writing lessons. Sheriff with Winona Ryder

Stranger Things. Sheriff won’t take no for an answer (taking Winona Ryder on a date?)

Little by little, Stranger Things builds the feeling of mystery and small-town horror. The creators use the characters you believe in, small details here and there (like Eleven’s flashbacks about her time at the experimental facility) and the pacing that’s just right to drip-feed us the secrets and shocking revelations.

Whenever one mystery gets resolved, there’s already another on the way. We’re always in a constant chase after answers, but this chase is fun, it thrills us and encourages to watch for more and never tires us. Stranger Things found a perfect balance of concealing a mystery and offering a great answer to our burning questions.

6. Don’t just give answers – make them satisfying

Stranger Things writing lessons. Sheriff

Stranger Things. Sheriff is about to find some answer

This point comes directly from the previous one. If you’re a master at building mystery and suspense but suck at connecting the dots, your readers will be more than frustrated – they will feel deceived, or worse – betrayed.

Remember that hit series Lost? It started off amazing, mysterious and having so much potential and viewers and critics’ attention. But after a couple seasons series creators led their promising ideas into a very disappointing dead end, and their desperate efforts to get out of it didn’t paid off much.

This case teaches us storytellers that it’s important to not only give answers to the questions we raise but that these answers are satisfying for the audience, moving the plot somehow and affect the characters to develop them more.

If you’re thinking just about adding resolutions for the sake of rounding up your questions and don’t actually add any depth or value to the story, think again. You might as well left those mysteries unsolved rather than making your fans angry with the dull answers.

7. Make your monsters unforgettable and really scary

Stranger Things writing lessons. Will with a snake tube in the Upside Down

Stranger Things. Will has a snake-like thing down his throat, Upside Down-style

Stranger Things don’t show you its hideous monster in full until about 80% in the series. You have to go along with obscure bits and pieces of the monster that are shown to you in the pitch-black darkness. Seriously, the night and Upside Down scenes in this show are so dark I couldn’t make out the details most of the time.

It comes back to the Lovecraft’s trick of conjuring up fear of the supernatural. A monster that you can’t see or don’t even know how it looks is so much scarier than a monster you have a full front of.

Let’s recap Stranger Things storytelling lessons

I hope this post haven’t only highlighted the strong points of the Stranger Things show, making you succumb to binge-watching it on Netflix right now and forget about writing your beautiful book. 🙂 I hope I showed you how many tools you have at your disposal when writing a book.

You don’t have to use all of them, of course! You just get inspired by the examples of the stories you really like and try to reverse-engineer why you like these particular things about them and how you can apply those for your own writing.

Stranger Things writing lessons. Will looking inside the shack

Stranger Things. Will is hesitant about going inside that shack, and he should be

Let’s just recap 7 lessons on writing a good story that we drew from Stranger Things:

  1. Tap into readers’ nostalgia to put them in some charming setting they dream of.
  2. Add allusions that enrich your story. That can be other books, movies, shows, video games or even historical events (or a fast food restaurant!).
  3. Consider killing one (or more?) of the heroes at some point in the story. Also, think about killing the bad guys too in an exceptional way.
  4. Make your characters alive and let them change throughout the course of the story. Remember, they’re not static portraits, they’re real people (or aliens, or robots, or ghosts).
  5. Build a mystery with a balanced pacing. Don’t make your story boring with a slow pace, but also know when it’s a bad idea to rush things. The rule of thumb: don’t water down your tense action scenes and don’t quicken your suspense scenes.
  6. Don’t just give answers to the secrets you’re raising – make them satisfying. Or take it to the next level and make your answers intriguing, raising more questions.
  7. Make your monsters unforgettable and really scary.

And now, head over to your Netflix account to binge-watch Stranger Things cabinet, or kitchen, or office, or just favorite chair, get your laptop ready (or maybe a notebook and an old-school pencil) and think about this: what of these lessons you already learned by yourself and how many of them do you use in your daily writing sessions? If you don’t use them, think about how would these stranger tips help you enhance your book?

Share you discoveries in the comments below!

P.S. Don’t forget to send this post to your writing friends: they might find these Stranger Things lessons inspiring. Just click those colorful social media buttons and share on your page.

P.P.S. Half of this post I wrote in Scrivener on my iPhone when on a beautiful nature getaway in the forest on the lake’s shore. Another half of the post I wrote in Scrivener on my iPad yesterday morning when waiting in the queue in an insurance company.

Just think of it: only a month ago it was impossible, and now it is a dream came true: Scrivener for iOS is truly indispensable for everyday writer’s tasks and can be used not only for books but for a blog as well. Thanks again, Literature and Latte!