Stranger Things

Last year I did a breakdown on why I think Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International universe has been such a colossal hit with readers. Having finished screening — with my wife and daughter — the runaway Netflix original series Stranger Things, I think there are many parallels which are worth re-examining; for writers seeking to tap into that elusive oomph that can make a SF/F project spark with the audience.

Both MHI and ST are contemporary thriller fiction which ask us to believe in a kind of shadow world, or alternate realm. Something we think we see just out of the corner of our eye, and when we turn to look, it’s gone.

That alternate realm — for both series — is infested by grotesque, nightmare-beneath-the-bed monsters.

As with MHI, the world of ST is troubled by the machinations of secretive government institutions and individuals within the government, who are actively harming the lives of decent citizens, while masquerading as protectors.

Also like MHI, the protagonists of ST are a somewhat rag-tag cast of n’er-do-wells and “broken” people — who’ve been kicked around by life. Yet, they find within themselves the power to fight for something, even if they don’t really understand what’s going on.

Family drama is very much front-and-center in both MHI and ST. The protagonists aren’t just battling supernatural evil, they’re battling themselves as well. Old wounds. Emotional scars. Loved ones lost. Unrequited love. Romance. Envy. Betrayal. All twined into the action, wherein the hero(s) and heroine(s) have to navigate their relationships, at the same time they’re trying to defeat demonic forces threatening the real world.

The conclusion of ST’s inaugural voyage is much like that of every MHI novel, in that it suggests there is much more “there” there. A story continuing long after the story, which entices viewers to look with anticipation for the next installment.

Setting aside the sterling character performances of the cast, I think season one of Stranger Things deserves high marks for some very astute, sharp writing. Which uses just about every tool in the thriller writer’s and horror writer’s toolbox. Including some patently classic scary movie editing which really maximizes the “jump in your seat” factor, as well as slowly winding the spring of anticipation — regarding character choices, consequences, and inevitability. In the end, ST’s first season is about redemption and sacrifice, as well as the nature and meaning of family, friendship, and loyalty. Each of the protagonists must make hard choices, in the face of overwhelming odds, while attempting to combat two different foes — one of which operates in the real world, while the other operates in an inverted mirror image of the real world.

That, my friends, is a recipe for a hit. It’s no wonder people have been talking non-stop about this show! And I watched it eagerly, not just as a writer who is always looking to unravel the clockwork of effective storytelling, but also as a fan — who likes to be swept up in that very same storytelling.

If you haven’t taken a look at Stranger Things‘ debut outing, I really think you should. It’s only eight episodes, and they really hit the ground running in the first hour. I don’t want to give away too many specific plot details, but the performances are top notch — especially the kids. With singular praise for Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the pivotal Eleven. She did a fantastic job, mainly because she had to communicate so much, without having very many lines of dialogue.

As always, when I peg to the fact that a story has utterly evaded the scalpel of my interior plot surgeon — the guy who is forever trying to pick apart every book or movie I see, to figure out how it ticks — I try not to worry too much about the Tab A into Slot B mechanics of the thing. Rather, I let the story roll around on the back forty of my brain. I try to turn off my targeting computer, and just let the story melt across my writerly semi-conscious; like butter on hot toast. I don’t believe directly imitating any story is a sure-fire path to success, but I do think that good stories can always teach us a lot about the craft, and the art. Because of the way they make us feel. ST (and MHI too) are great at getting us to feel these people, and what they’re going through. To include — perhaps surprisingly — antagonists who turn out to not be bad guys after all. Even if they’ve done some bad things.

Anyway, Stranger Things was a delight. Highly recommended, both for pure enjoyment, and as a lesson in terrific tale-telling.

17 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART, WRITING: CRAFT

17 responses to “Stranger Things

  1. Personally, I couldn’t finish watching the pilot of “Stranger Things”. (But then, I couldn’t finish reading MHI, either.)

    I wrote a blog post about why I gave up on the pilot of Stranger Things, but the short answer is that the writers seemed to go out of their way to introduce the characters at times when they were their most unattractive.

    The D&D game could have been a chance to show the kids interacting, but instead they simply sat around passively while the DM told a melodramatic campfire story. The one player who attempts to do something fails his roll and asks another player if he should cheat.

    The family of the kid who is hosting the game are shown just long enough to yell at the kids to break up the game.

    The single mother of the one kid who goes missing isn’t home, and the next day doesn’t even seem to realize that her son is missing until time to go to school. This is interspaced with shots of a man waking up from a bender on his couch.

    Then we go to a schoolyard where some extremely stereotypical bullies begin taunting the kids from the first scene, and it’s there that I gave up.

    There was nobody in the show that I wanted to get to know better or cared about. Maybe they turn out to be sympathetic characters, but my first impression of everyone who I was shown was bad enough that I had no desire to get to know them better.

    • Bob

      -Everyone at their least attractive-

      Except Wil, who showed his ‘character’ by throwing the fireball instead of playing it safe, and whose disappearance spurs all the other protagonists to get their act together.

      I found them interesting enough to keep watching, as they moved from walking tropes and evolved into awesome.

      Particularly loved how the story subverts (sorry, I know that’s become a dirty word because of how its been misused, but that’s the best word to describe this) some of the tropes, like the guy we automatically cast as the bumbling, indifferent police chief, who becomes the breakout hero.

      • I was not impressed by the fireball character in the game sequence, but part of that may be that I know how D&D is played and it’s clear that the writers don’t.

      • John R. Ellis

        Much as I grew to root for Hopper, well, he makes some choices in the climax you -know- are going to bite him badly in the second season. Which should make for great drama. 🙂

  2. The first couple of episodes were intriguing enough to keep me watching, but I thought the first three were weaker than the next several. Overall I enjoyed ST, but there were things I found jarring. The biggest one was why does the upside down world have all these buildings and vehicles and stuff when there don’t appear to be any people around to build them. Are they just appearing out of thin air?

    • John R. Ellis

      From hints the showrunners have stated, the Upside-Down is sort of like looking at the physical world via a different we browser. Only instead of having different options for saving history and adding apps, this one contains…THINGS that want to DEVOUR. o_o;

  3. nightmare-beneath-the-bed monsters.

    That trope has long amused me, as when I was younger I knew there were no monsters under the bed, nor in the closet (when I had such). Those were my spaces, so… oh wait, right… yeah maybe it was me. But I didn’t emerge to frighten any (other) kids, so… make of that what ever.

  4. Katabatic

    Love that show. I’m always trying to pick apart stories that grab me to figure out how they tick 🙂

  5. Bob

    I loved the show too, and I need to re-watch it.

    I said as much in a reply above, but it’s particularly interesting in how they employ 80s TV and movie tropes as a way to avoid the ‘heavy lifting’ of establishing characters and situation, so that the writers can just proceed with their own takes on them.

    But as for picking apart stories, I’ve got to admit I noticed a couple of weak spots.

    SPOILERS

    First: some of the kids’ bickering and arguments seemed contrived to me. Like they were arguing just because the script says at this point they argue and split up. Or how one of them automatically turned on Eleven and said she was sabotaging the rescue without even considering that the ‘gate’ would probably be surrounded by guards (and these are D&D players???)

    And second: when Hopper breaks into the government site, gets caught and just put back home. Why don’t they just kill him? They had no compunction about killing him and making it look like and OD later. It would’ve made more sense for him to get sucked into that gate thing, wander around, get chased by the demogorgon and spat out someplace else and wander home, sidestepping the government goons’ need to act illogical.

    But yeah, can’t wait for the next season – even if the news is constantly trying to throw spoilers at me, spoilers in the damn HEADLINES no less! (c’mon, just say ‘a character is returning’, don’t say who!)

    But that’s a separate rant.

  6. Matthew

    Just finidshed it last night – DAMN was it good!

  7. It’s going on the TBW list. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Christopher M. Chupik

    Grumble, grumble . . . something else to eat up my free time . . . grumble, grumble . . .

  9. I hope they do cast Wil Wheaton in season 2; I’ve been trying to convince people this show is actually terrible, and that would help a lot.