The Runaway Success of Stranger Things: Four Lessons for Screenwriters

By July 14, 2017Blog, Featured

By: Megan Turner

When Stranger Things debuted on Netflix in July 2016, many expected it to be the sleeper hit of the summer. From its high production value, youthful cast and nostalgic, retro vibe, there was little reason to doubt that Netflix had a hit on its hands. Yet somehow the show defied all expectations, garnering universal acclaim, record ratings, and numerous accolades – not to mention a level of cultural engagement unseen since the era of Twin Peaks. 

On one level, the show’s success is no surprise –  Stranger Things is an expertly crafted, supremely binge-able slice of serialized TV – but it’s easy to forget that prior to its release, the filmmakers behind the show were virtually unknown. Apart from a small handful of specs and a low-budget feature marred by a botched studio release, there was little evidence to suggest that the Duffer Brothers were on the cusp of delivering the next big thing. And yet here we are, just one year later, with promotion ramping up on the show’s hotly anticipated second season.

Is there a method to the madness? So often it can be tempting to view a show like Stranger Things as lightning in a bottle. And while good fortune no doubt had a part to play (it always does), there were several other, more important factors that led to the Duffer Brothers’ breakaway success.

Let’s take a look at four.

A foot in the door.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how Matt and Ross Duffer managed to plant their foot in Hollywood’s door. Even with the botched release of their first feature “Hidden”, the film still managed to catch the attention of television producer Donald De Line. Impressed with the film’s unique style, the producer offered the brothers the opportunity to work on a few episodes of “Wayward Pines”, a relatively successful pulp fiction science fiction drama produced by none other than cult filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.

With mentorship from Shyamalan, the Duffer Brothers found their figurative feet and as well as the confidence that they could produce their own television series. With a script in hand, they shopped their idea around the major cable television networks, but were met with rejection – mostly due to the fact that the main cast would be comprised of mostly adolescent children with adults relegated to supporting roles. A small handful of offers were made under the condition that the script be rewritten in the vain of children’s shows like “Goosebumps” or “Are You Afraid Of the Dark”, or, alternatively, that the story focus primarily on Chief Hopper’s investigation of Will Byers’ disappearance.

But thankfully (more for the fans than anyone else) the Duffer Brothers declined the offers with their artistic integrity intact. It wasn’t until early 2015 that the script landed in the hands of the Vice President of 21 Laps Entertainment Dan Cohen, who passed it along to producer Shawn Levy. The Duffer Brothers were quickly ushered into Levy’s office and the rights were purchased for the sort of unknown amount that virtually all film and television writers dream about. In addition, the Duffer Brothers were given full authorship of their project, which soon made its way to Netflix, where the first season was subsequently bought and paid for.

The lesson? There’s no such thing as an overnight success. For the years preceding Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers were hard at work developing an impressive portfolio that would later serve as their calling card to Hollywood.

A combination of inspiration and world-building. 

Chances are you already know where I’m going with this segment. If you’ve watched at least the first episode of “Stranger Things” you’ll find traces of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and even Robert Zemeckis – all directors who hit their first of many peaks in the 1980’s.

Each episode is practically gushing with pop culture references that any fan can pick up without even realizing they’ve spotted one. Something just feels so – comfortable – about the eerie fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. It’s a setting that perfectly captures the experience of reading a Stephen King novel – even more so than the majority of filmed adaptations of the author’s work. In particular, the first season heavily references the structure of Stephen King’s “Stand By Me”, a film about four friends from the fictional city of Castle Rock, Maine, who set out to find the body of a young boy. It’s a legitimate comparison, but Stranger Things has just as much in common with another Stephen King story: “It”. Again, it takes place in a quiet, fictional town (this time in Derry, Maine) where seven friends search for a friend who up and vanished like a dying ember.

The point is that Stranger Things builds its nostalgia on the backs of the masters. Whereas so many film and TV shows use pop-culture references as a crutch, the Duffer brothers use their influences to flesh out a world with an unrivaled sense of place.

A structure that blends film and television.

When it comes to serialized television, the majority of first seasons span anywhere from twelve to twenty two episodes, depending on things like budget, scheduling, and studio optimism. In comparison, “Stranger Things” runs like a pulpy serial novel. At a mere eight episodes, Stranger Things stands out not just in comparison to traditional broadcast models, but also against the majority of Netflix’s own original series.

The limited episode count does enormous favors to the pacing of the story, landing it somewhere between a film and a traditional season of television. Although some critics decried its brevity,  the Duffer Brothers created the series to run like a long movie, split into eight segments. The goal? To emphasize plot and character in each episode without stretching any element too thin. Compare this to the running time constraints of conventional movies, which often struggle to contain their narratives within a reasonable running time. Traditionally, TV has the opposite problem, with even the best shows resorting to filler to pad out their length.

While the concept of a ‘miniseries’ is hardly new, the teleplays for Stranger Things are arguably the most successful attempt we’ve seen at blending the pacing of a great movie with the rich characterization of serialized television.

A commitment to character development above all.

At the emotional center of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers chose to focus first and foremost on the emotional turmoil a parent undergoes when faced with a missing child. It’s from this decision that Joyce Byers was born. Even as the first season takes us on a nightmarish journey through a small town that somehow make us feel nervous and cozy at the same time, the events are grounded by Joyce’s unravelling as she finds herself increasingly isolated from her own community. As the first episode progresses, we’re introduced to all of the central cast: a motley crue of Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts who’ve yet to meet puberty, the beautiful girl next door and her comely best friend, the unlikely hero and his rival, the mysterious stranger, and a corrupt government official hell-bent of his personal demise.

At first glance, this random assortment of character might appear to dangle precariously over the clichéd character tropes that pop up throughout just about every movie from the 1980’s. But it’s important to understand where the clichés came from in the first place, and why they’re so important to this particular story.

On a personal level, I can’t think of a single childhood friend who wasn’t obsessed with the latest craze, from “Super Mario Brothers” to “Dungeons & Dragons”. Those four adolescent boys ARE US, and it’s too easy to see ourselves in their shoes as they begin their journey. The effectiveness of the young cast of Stranger Things recalls films like The Goonies and Stand By Me – stories that work in part because they feel close in essence to our own childhood games and wild imaginations.

And even in those brief moments when the show’s archetypes feel a bit too familiar, it’s worth remembering that humans really are the most clichéd species on the planet. We are the blue-collar workers in dead-end jobs. We are the bored stay-at-home parents, the high-functioning alcoholics, and the wannabe screenwriters with dull day jobs who write articles on the side… I could go on. The key is always to make your characters feel like real people first and foremost, and in this way, Stranger Things is an unquestionable success.

The Duffer Brothers carved their own special success story with Stranger Things. The question is, as screenwriters, how can we do the same? Unfortunately, the first lesson any aspiring writer learns is that there’s no cut and dry how-to guide when it comes to telling an effective story – especially one that taps into the cultural zeitgeist. Some writers are able to craft an amazing piece of work, while others get extremely lucky. More often, it’s a combination of the two.

What one should take away from this article is that superior storytelling truly does rise to the top. Back your best ideas up with a solid portfolio of work, and the possibilities are endless. For the Duffer Brothers, that meant reworking their own imaginations – blending inspiration with aspiration.

The key lesson? Write your story for yourself. Edit it for everyone else.