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.