If you’ve ever wanted to write a TV show, you need to watch STRANGER THINGS, the new terrific series on Netflix. Set in 1983 and embracing all the fun of a Stephen King-esque story, a classic 80’s synth score, and a talented young cast, it’s the best new series I’ve seen this year.
Most importantly, the writing is SUPERB.
The one hour drama, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers (twins from North Carolina,) is a masterclass in genre, character, story and thrills. The pilot is sublime. And I’m going to break it down structurally so you can see how they introduce the concept of the show and its wide cast of characters, all while delivering on story in every single scene.
Here’s the breakdown. Because it’s a Netflix show, there are no commercials. Still, it has a traditional 4 act plus a teaser structure, and ends with a cliffhanger. I’ve inserted the act breaks where I felt they fell….
Super: Hawkins Indiana 1983
Energy lab—we see a scientist running through a hallway. Something’s escaped and is chasing him. He rushes into an elevator and seems safe, but looks up and a terrifying creature sucks him into oblivion.
Meanwhile in a basement “rumpus room,” four 12-year-old boys (Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons. They get freaked out when the Demagorgon appears on the board. Mike’s mom comes down the stairs and tells them to break it up. It’s late– they’ve been playing for hours.
Will, Lucas and Dustin leave on their bikes and drive off into the night.
Will peels off to head to his house and rides past an area in the forest that says, “Restricted.” He gets scared by something and crashes his bike. He runs to his house, tries to call for help, but there are weird monster sounds on the phone. He runs for the shed outside the house, and loads up his gun. He points it at the door, but the lightbulb behind him weirdly lights up. He turns around and is sucked away by the creature.
TITLE SEQUENCE (if you were alive in the 80’s you will feel like it’s the 80’s again.)
Super CHAPTER ONE: THE VANISHING OF WILL BYERS
A sloppy dude wakes up in the morning, brushes his teeth, then swallows some aspirin with a Schlitz. He’s not in good shape, clearly drank too much the night before and lives in a trailer. As he gets dressed, we see he’s the chief of police. (how great is this char intro?)
Will’s mom Joyce and older brother Jonathan realize he’s gone. Neither of them know if he came home last night as they were both working. Joyce calls Mike’s mom. Will’s not there.
At Hawkins Middle School, Mike, Lucas and Dustin arrive and wonder where Will is. They are bullied by two jerky kids. Mike’s older sister Nancy and her BFF Barb talk about Nancy’s new boyfriend Steve Harrington. Barb’s worried Nancy’s going to be popular now. Nancy says “Don’t be silly.” She meets Steve in the bathroom. They kiss. He wants her to come out with him that night. She says “Ok, meet me eight. To study.”
Hopper, the police chief, shows up at the station. Joyce is waiting, tells him Will is missing. He doesn’t take her seriously. She’s desperate, “Please, find my son!”
At the lab, weird scientists arrive and we meet the head guy, Dr. Brenner. Something has escaped. They all put on protective suits. They enter a weird chamber, and see a strange monster-y portal in the wall. Someone says, “The girl can’t have gone far.”
A weird girl, with a shaved head, wearing a hospital gown, wanders in the woods. She’s hungry, sneaks into the kitchen of a diner, tries to steal food. The owner, Benny, catches her.
At school, the boys are excited because their new nerdy AV club equipment just arrived. Lucas says, “When Will sees this he’s going to blow his shit.” A nice teacher tells Lucas to watch his mouth. Hopper shows up.
In one of the best scenes in the pilot (seriously, just watch it,) Hopper questions the boys. They tell him where Will usually rides his bike. They want to help look. Hopper says no.
Joyce and Jonathan look for Will near his old fort. Joyce FLASHES BACK to her entering the fort to show Will that she got tickets to the movie POLTERGEIST. We see that she loves him a lot and they are close.
At the diner, the owner gives the weird girl some food. He tries to ask her questions, but she won’t talk. She has a tattoo of the number eleven on her arm. He asks her name. She says, “Eleven.” He calls social services. The girl stops a squeaky fan with her mind.
Hopper searches for Will on the route he took home, and finds his bike, crashed.
Back at the lab, a bunch of guys are eavesdropping on all the phone calls being made in town. Joyce calls her ex Lonnie, and leaves a message that Will is missing. Hopper arrives with the bike, thinks that Will ran home. He goes into the shed, discovers the bullets and the gun. Now he’s worried. He’s getting a search party together. (see how the conflict is escalating?)
Mike’s mom won’t let him go search for Will. Nancy says she’s going to study at Barb’s. Her mom says no way. Mike tells his mom that Nancy’s going to sneak off with Steve Harrington. Nancy’s pissed at Mike.
The search party moves through the dark woods. The nice AV teacher talks to Hopper. Hopper says his daughter Sarah lives with her mom in the city. When he walks away, another searcher tells the teacher that Hopper’s daughter died a few years back. (see how exposition is woven subtly in a scene where they are actively pursuing the goal of finding Will?)
Mike contacts the boys on their walkie talkies. They need to search for Will. They sneak out and meet on their bikes. Steve climbs up to Nancy’s window. She lets him in.
At the diner, a “Social Services” lady comes to collect the girl. She shoots Benny dead. The girl runs, kills two guys with her mind. She escapes. Dr Brenner is now after her. (I’ve linked this terrific scene below so you can watch.)
The boys start searching the forest where Will’s bike was found.
Steve climbs in Nancy’s window and quizzes her for the test. They kiss. When she says she’s not going to sleep with him, he accepts it. We can see she really likes him.
Jonathan has made posters. Joyce apologizes for not being there for him, working so hard. He starts to cry, thinks it’s his fault that Will disappeared. Joyce says Will is close, she feels it in her heart. The phone rings. She can hear Will’s voice and some creepy sounds, then the phone explodes. It was Will on the phone!
The boys are searching, flashlights going. It’s pouring rain. Dustin is scared, wants to go back. They hear a strange noise, stop, frightened.
Mike’s flashlight lands on the weird girl’s face. She’s shivering, cold.
END EPISODE ONE
The reason I wanted to break this structure down for you is to show how quickly the central conflict is launched, the way the characters are introduced through action, and how the writers use strong plot points that end each “act” to glue the viewer to the narrative. This pilot script is like the first chapter in a really great book. We get the main “problem,” meet the characters, and bam– we’re slammed into a story with twists and turns and stakes.
Take Action! Does your pilot start with a BANG? Do you plunge the viewer immediately into the central conflict and allow the characters to be introduced as they pursue their goals? Are there intense plot points that end each act and compel the viewer to keep watching? Is there a cliffhanger at the very end that drives the viewer to watch the next episode? Are you clear about your genre and using all the conventions in a way that feels fresh?
Watch STRANGER THINGS. Its concept is clear, it’s executed perfectly, and delivers on story.
I dare you not to love it.
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