The excitement surrounding the release and immediate success of Netflix’ paranormal stunner Stranger Things is well-deserved. Few shows (or movies) in recent years have executed such a fine balance between wonder, horror, humor, and nostalgia.
In the wake of the show’s release a veritable flood of reviews, blogs, lists and videos flowed across the internet. Most of these focused upon the cornucopia of 80s film references the Duffer Brothers wove throughout Stranger Things. This kind of Easter-egg hunting is fun. Everyone likes to match up an image or sequence they’re seeing now with one they saw thirty years ago.
But as stimulating as the nostalgia hunt can be, it has overlooked a far more important element of the show’s success. Namely, that it is that rarest of beasts: a good story well told.
If there is any justice in the world, executives at Netflix, other television studios, and Hollywood will take note of how audiences have responded enthusiastically to an original story. I cannot be the only person on planet Earth grown tired and weary of the endless zombie horde of remakes and reboots. Today’s moviegoer is only a few degrees removed from sad and mopey Rick and Carl, asking God what the hell they did to deserve this deathless fucking mob that never fucking ends.
Lucky for all of us, there are still a few screenwriters out there producing quality new work.
Laugh Until You Scream
It has been noted many times before, but it bears repeating: horror and humor are two sides of the same coin. There is a thin line between screams of terror and hoots of delight. This is most readily evident in horror movies in which the horrific elements of the plot have been stretched beyond their limits. Eventually an audience gives up, no longer willing to follow where the writer has taken them, and when they do the very scenes that are supposed to terrify the most fall flat. And the audience laughs.
The opposite is also true. Mark Twain once noted that the secret source of humor is sorrow. There is something cruel at the heart of humor. After all, someone is always the butt of the joke. You can push a joke further and further, until the laughter turns dark and the audience is appalled.
But when the two elements are in balance, something truly fine happens.
Stranger Things is a good example. There is a great deal of darkness within this tale. A teenage girl is brutally murdered by an otherworldly beast. A young boy spends weeks inside another dimension, constantly on the run from the same monster.
And yet, the Duffer Brothers lace their story with plenty of comic relief. The boys at the center of the story provide the most laughs, which goes a long way in making them endearing. Hawkins’ Sheriff also demonstrates a comic sensibility, in spite of being haunted by his past.
The lighter moments are needed. They allow the audience to breathe, as well as move back and forth across the emotional spectrum.
Ambitious screenwriters would do well to take note.
Less is More
Ah, the old adage. Oft heard, rarely followed. Especially in modern Hollywood.
Stranger Things is a master’s class in how to make the greatest impact with the least amount of effort. Consider how little the Duffer Brothers invested in special effects, considered by most Hollywood execs to be the single (only) most important element of telling visual stories. The Duffers pull off a few nifty tricks, no doubt about it, but they pepper them throughout, aiming for maximum effect.
While much has been made of the Duffer Brothers’ indebtedness to Steven Spielberg, that wizard of the 80s, perhaps none was more important than the lesson illustrated by Jaws. Don’t show the shark until you have to. Let the horror build in the viewer’s imagination.
The Duffers ride this line well, rarely giving us a glimpse of the beast from the Upside Down until almost the very end of the show.
Even more remarkable, however, is the range of emotion and intelligence displayed by the character Eleven, all of it conveyed almost without dialogue.
Film and television, remember, are visual mediums. As Hitchcock often noted: first you compose the story, then you add the dialogue. That might be a stretch, but the brilliant performance by Millie Bobby Brown demonstrates just how far you can go with a character who rarely speaks.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Character motivation is key to any story. As writers, we often spend a fair amount of time mulling over just what our characters want and how badly they really want it.
Stranger Things reminds us, however, that our characters don’t always know what they want. In fact, sometimes they don’t have a freakin clue.
This is most notable in the character of Nancy Wheeler, who claims repeatedly that her boyfriend doesn’t want to get down her pants…and that she doesn’t want to get down his. Even heading up the stairs to strip naked in his bedroom, she expresses the delusion that she doesn’t intend to do that.
Nancy’s little brother Mike is equally clueless. It takes Mike over half the show to realize that he might actually have feelings for Eleven, and even when confronted with this information he denies it. He insists his motivations are purely driven by saving his friend, Will.
Understanding this dialectic is more crucial for screenwriters than for novelists or dramatists. On the screen, good writing consistently walks the line between what a character says and what the character actually means. As Robert McKee points out in his fabulous book Story, dialogue in film (when its good) works on two levels. When it doesn’t, it falls flat.
Working on two levels often comes from understanding what a character really wants and understanding what they believe they want.
The Real McCoy
When it comes to movies and shows that center around kids, it’s important–nay, critical–to get the kids right. One of the most difficult elements for screenwriters is nailing not just how kids behave but how they talk.
Stranger Things follows a time-honored tradition of focusing primarily on scenes in which parents are absent, allowing its young actors to, well, be kids. From The Outsiders to The Goonies to Stand By Me to Super 8, this has long been a coming-of-age trope. It doesn’t hurt that the story takes place in the early 80s, a period of time in which kids could actually escape their parents for extended lengths of time (it’s debatable whether or not you could shoot this kind of story set in our own era).
And of course it makes a considerable difference having competent young actors who can fully inhabit their roles.
But the Duffer Brothers deserve a fair amount of credit for nailing the details of their characters. The games they play. The clothes they wear. The way they talk. The cultural influences of the time. While many commentators have focused on these elements of the show as fun homages, it bears recognizing that they are also the elements which shape the characters of the story.
One of the primary reasons Stranger Things succeeds is because we believe in the kids. We believe because they live and breathe and talk and act like children (including the teenagers). They are driven by their innocence, by their need for acceptance, by their naivete, by their irrational courage. As we watch, they feel like real kids, not simply talented actors mouthing poorly constructed lines.