I recently finished watching the great Netflix television series Stranger Things last night. I absolutely loved every frame of this show; a sentiment reinforced by my desire to start over with Episode One and binge-watch the entire thing all over again. As with the novel All the Light We Cannot See and the foreign film The Lives of Others, Stranger Things connects with a sophistication that places it in the hallowed Hall of the Heroes.1
What isn't timeless are the countless 80s references and scenes inspired by 80s movies. The bond between Stranger Things and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial exists as most prominent: pre-teen kids shelter someone—or something—wanted by a mysterious government agency. Funny than, that I should complete the series on the heels of our deep Dramatica thematic analysis of E.T. last week.
The Drive to Pursue, the Drive to Avoid
E.T ends in success because the kids help the little alien escape our planet. Stranger Things ends in success because the kids stand up and pursue the monsters behind the Upside Down (both super-dimensionally and dimensionally).
In Dramatica we see the Overall Story Problem of E.T.—the inflection point of conflict that motivates each and every scene--as being Pursuit. Keys and the Government pursue E.T. and E.T. pursues a path towards phoning home. Without this drive to pursue there would be no conflict in the movie.
The dynamic opposite to Pursuit is Avoidance. When one identifies the Problem of a Throughline, one simultaneously calls out the Solution of that Throughline. The conflict in E.T finds motivation in Pursuit, yet discovers resolution in Avoidance (running away from or escaping).
The flow from Problem to Solution in the Overall Story Throughline for the first season of Stranger Things moves in the opposite direction. The Government tries to prevent anyone from finding out about 11 or the tear in the space-time continuum while the boys do everything they can to keep anyone from finding out about 11. Without this drive on both sides to prevent and avoid there would be no conflict in the series.
In the next to last episode of the series, the boys find themselves pedalling for safety as members of an unidentified Government Agency chase after them. The scene bears a striking resemblance to the climactic scene in E.T., one so strong that a prediction as to the eventual outcome of that scene seems inevitable: 11 will lift the boys and their bikes into the air.
But she doesn't.
The reason she does the exact opposite thing E.T. did lies in this difference between Overall Story Problems. Mike and the others need Pursuit to resove their conflict—they need someone to stand up and fight against these "bad men." Elliott and his friends need Avoidance—they need someone to lift them up in the air to the accompaniment of one of John William's greatest scores of all time.
Confidence in the Conflict
I love Stranger Things. And I love E.T. The thing with the former is that it brings back all of my love for film and why I dedicated my whole life to great stories. Because they matter. In fact, I recently tweeted about the show:
I love Stranger Things so much. It makes me want to read Stephen King novels, ride a bike, and play D&D.
The key to writing a great, compelling story that outlasts you and everyone else who works with you is finding the conflict that really lies at the heart of your narrative. Like the difference between Luke and Neo, stark differences exist between the Overall Stories of supposedly similar stories. Superficially Stranger Things seems like an updated homage to E.T., but deep down underneath it all the truth reads stranger than fiction.
You just need to start thinking like the flea, instead of the acrobat.
Yes, that's a Dungeons & Dragons reference. ↩︎