If you haven’t been sleeping under rock with sound-proof titanium, you must have stumbled across the Netflix original series “Stranger Things” about a kid disappearing in some sleepy American town. What follows is pure storytelling drama fired up with conspiracies, nostalgic horror mysteries and even stranger things.
The critics and audience darling will likely be renewed for a second season, but before it hits the digital shelves, let me extract 4 juicy storytelling lessons from the hit series:
1) Everything is a remix
“Stranger Things” steals so many tropes from the 80s, it’s a wonder the Justice Department of Movie Ideas hasn’t swatted them yet. In fact, the website Zimbio has listed every original source the series’ makers used as ‘inspiration’. Steven Spielberg movies and Stephen King’s horror stories were just some of the references I got. And yet, by combining these known storytelling sources, “Stranger Things” has become greater than the sum of its parts. Which brings us to documentary filmmaker Kirby Ferguson and his idea model “Everything is a remix”:
1) Copy. You get ideas from what you love.
2) Transform. You rearrange these pieces and transform them.
3) Combine. You combine the ‘changed’ pieces and thus create something new.
Lesson: the audience never wants something ‘entirely’ new. They want something they already know, albeit a bit differently. So take the things from your market and rearrange them in new ways to both stand out but still cater to the group.
Which brings us to point 2 below:
2) Trigger familiarity
Remember the minor rants about Marvel movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” cashing in on 80s nostalgia by featuring their classic hit music? Well, “Stranger Things” takes it to a new level by using tropes, characters, music, heck, even screen fonts from the 80s era.
Stranger Thing’s storytelling wants to take now-adults back to their childhoods and grandparents back to their parent days, thus triggering the (melancholic) emotions from the past.
Lesson: familiarity is a powerful emotion. Whatever market you produce for, find a common ground, preferably a positive one, that immediately connects with your audience. That could be a specific time in history, a character or setting. Once you have the emotional link, you can take your audience wherever you want them to.
3) Ask WTF questions
“Stranger Things” is the thriller of a thriller. During the 8 episode run, it asks one major question: WTF happened to Will?
And then it poses smaller questions throughout each episode: what’s going on in that town? Who’s that boyish girl? What’s up with the woods (Pssst, don’t go there!) and many more.
Every new episode you get a weeny-bit closer to the truth, but not quite. To really find out what’s going on in “Stranger Things”, you have to watch until the last episode. Bastards.
Lesson: if you want to write a fast-paced series, pose one major question and answer it at the very end of the series. During the series, ask many smaller questions scattered across each book and answer them by the end.
4) Attract the four-quadrants
In case you don’t know, that’s Hollywood lingo for the four major target groups according to the big studios—female and male, under and over 25 years old.
“Stranger Things” features stars in EVERY age bracket: You have the courageous kids story (middle school), the teenage horror love story (high school) and the grown-up parents and officers (adult, middle-aged). Which is why you see so many old and young people watching the show—there’s storytelling for everyone!
Lesson: think about the age group of your market. Either you go niche, e.g. Young Adult, or you go broad and feature characters of different age groups to cast a wider net. My sci-fi books mostly feature young adults and seasoned veterans because that resembles the reader audience.
I believe you can learn storytelling from any kind of story medium, and “Stranger Things” is such an addictive series it features the best lessons of them all.
What’s your favorite storytelling device or moment from the Netflix hit series?
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