Stranger Things 2 Podcast:
Part 1: Primary & Secondary Structure
This week we are going to be looking at Stranger Things, Season 2. And don’t worry if you haven’t seen the whole season, because for this podcast to be valuable, all you need to watch is the first episode. And I’ll save the big spoilers for the end and give you a little warning before we get there.
We’re going to be looking at that first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2 in an interesting way– by comparing it structurally to that unforgettable pilot episode of Season 1, which launched the whole franchise.
As I discussed in my two part podcast about Stranger Things, Season 1 the pilot episode of any series does more than just introduce great characters or tell a great story. It creates an engine powerful enough to launch every character in the series into a huge journey– and a replicable structure for the series powerful enough to last many seasons.
But Stranger Things 1 has a particularly challenging structure to replicate in Stranger Things 2.
That’s because the whole structure of the first season is built around a simple problem that’s completely resolved by the time we get to the second season!
In Stranger Things 1, a little boy named Will is missing, and his merry band of friends friends need to come together in a real-world Dungeons & Dragons quest to find him.
Wrapped around this very simple structure are a bunch of wonderfully horrifying elements– a creature that can only be seen in the shadows, a magical world called The Upside Down that’s only gradually revealing itself, a bunch of creepy-creepy operatives that are ready to kill to protect a secret that even they don’t understand, a mother communicating with her lost son through Christmas lights, and of course, Eleven, a little girl with magical powers who everyone seems to be hunting.
But by the time we get to Episode 1 of Season 2, Will is back (at least mostly) in the real world, so there’s no missing boy to build a structure around.
By the time we get to Season 2, the terrifying Demogorgon, which once was scary like the shark in Jaws, not for what we could see, but for what we couldn’t– has not only been flushed from the shadows, but vanquished from them (at least mostly). So we need a new fin in the water to build the terror around.
By the time we get to Season 2, the world of The Upside Down, which we only barely understood, has now been entered and explored. So we need a new mystery in The Upside Down to build the world around.
By the time we get to Season 2, the mother, Joyce, can communicate with Will while driving carpool, so we need a new spiritual component that no one else understands to build the relationship around.
And by the time we get to Season 2, (at least as far as we know), Eleven is gone. So we need a new magical little girl to build the threat around.
In fact, by the time we get to Season 2, the only major structural element we still have going for us from the engine of Season 1 is the creepy operatives. But even they are a whole lot less interesting, now that we have some sense of who they are and what they do…
Which means the first episode of Season 2 has to do a lot more than replicate the engine of Season 1. It actually has to re-launch it.
In this way, the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2 becomes a whole new pilot for the series. Which is a big challenge for the writers. But is fortunate for us.
Because it gives us the chance to compare a great pilot episode to a good one.
It gives us a chance to compare the kind of pilot that can launch us into a new series to one that only works if we’re already in love with that series.
And that’s a valuable lesson for any TV writer– or any film writer for that matter.
Because the difference between the Stranger Things, Season 1 pilot and the first episode of Season 2 is the same difference between the original pilot script that’s likely to sell your series, and the one that’s certain to get lost in the shuffle.
And that difference is not any of the technical things we usually worry about. It’s not bad dialogue or lousy characters or weak ideas or meandering plotlines.
Because the Stranger Things, Season 2 opener doesn’t suffer from any of those issues. It’s a beautifully written episode and quite enjoyable, and I think we can all rest assured, when it comes to the plot of Season 2, the Duffer Brothers have plenty up their sleeves.
But the episode does suffer from a huge problem, that so many of my students wrestle with in their own TV writing. And that you are likely wrestling with in yours.
And that problem is setting stuff up for later. When you could be getting it started right now.
As screenwriters, and TV Writers, we all have a tendency to save the best for last.
We come up with a great idea, and we hold it tightly in our pocket, saving it for later, setting it up, so we can pay it off.
But the best pilots, and the best scripts, don’t save the best for last.
They save the best for first.
That’s the difference between a pilot that’s going to sell your new series. And one that’s going to sit on the shelf.
And that’s the difference between the pilot episode of Stranger Things, Season 1, and the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2.
The truth is, if you are like me, you probably enjoyed the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2 very much. After all, you are getting reacquainted with some characters you love. You’ve got some fabulous genre elements that can connect to, more 80’s throwback nostalgia than you can shake a stick at, and a kind of door to reentry into a world that you really enjoyed the first time around.
But at the same time, you can’t help but feel like everything’s a little slower, a little more static, a little less high stakes than what you remembered from Season 1. The volume seems turned to an 11 on the 80’s nostalgia, but about a 3 for the actual story.
We can feel the Duffer Brothers pulling on the cord as hard as they can, trying to get the engine started on that old trusty lawn mower, but not quite getting it to actually turn over.
In fact, if you’ve seen Season 2, Episode 2, when suddenly that trusty engine finally starts to run again, you probably felt, like I did, that with a few tweaks, the whole season could have just started there– and launched us into everything in a far more dramatic way.
If you’re the Duffer Brothers, and it takes a few pulls on the old cord to get the engine started, you’re probably going to get away with it. Because we already trust that old lawnmower you’ve created. We’ve known it and loved it, and we know the great work it’s going to do. That it always starts up eventually.
But if you’re a normal human being who walks the earth, who wants to sell a new series pilot, get hired for a staff writing gig, get signed by an agent or manager, you’ve gotta get your series engine started from the very first page. Just like the Duffer Brothers did in the pilot of Stranger Things, Season 1.
And as anyone who has ever sold a TV pilot knows, sometimes that means writing not only the pilot, but the 2nd Episode, the 20th Episode, and even the Show Bible— so that we can truly know what we’re building, before we return the the pilot and make sure it’s doing everything we need it to do. Not only launching the characters from page 1 into a story that will change their lives forever, but also creating a blueprint for every episode to come.
A lot of people think that the purpose of your pilot, (or for you feature writers, the first act of your screenplay), is to set things up for the audience, to lay in the foundations of all the stuff that is going to pay off later and establish the world.
But the truth is, you don’t have any time to set up at all.
You can’t waste pages establishing the world or establishing the character. You’ve got to jump right into the heart of the action. Otherwise your reader is never going to make it to that great stuff you’re paying off later, because they’ll have already set down the script, or changed the channel on the TV, or switched to a new show on Netflix.
At the same time, if you’ve seen the first episode of Stranger Things, Season 2, you might be wondering what’s keeping it from feeling like we’re jumping right into the heart of the action.
What’s actually making it feel different from the experience we had watching the pilot of Stranger Things, Season 1? What’s getting in the way of getting the engine started? After all, isn’t it all building to a huge reveal at the end– where we discover something we might never have imagined?
It’s important to understand that jumping right into the heart of the action isn’t something you do to get the story started for the audience. It is something you do to get the story started for the characters.
Every screenplay, and every teleplay, has two different levels of structure.
The first, I call Primary Structure, the story of the character’s journey, as experienced by the characters. The huge choices the characters make at each moment in relation to the things they want and the obstacles in their path. The choices that open the door to change and ultimately that change their lives forever.
Secondary Structure is the way you serve that Primary Structure to the audience– the way the audience experiences the story of the movie at each moment– the story they are telling themselves… now, and now, and now…
The Secondary Structure is the delivery mechanism for the Primary Structure within it. The bun around the delicious meat of your character’s journey.
If your Primary Structure is working, you can serve it up to your audience in pretty much any way you want to enhance their experience of the show. You can slice and dice it, flash it back, flash it forward, hide it away, chop it up, or toss it like a salad. You can serve it on multigrain, flatbread, a spinach wrap, open face, or even with no bun at all.
But if your Primary Structure isn’t working, if your characters aren’t launched immediately into making huge choices in pursuit of what they want that change their lives forever– if you’ve got Secondary Structure without the Primary Structure– you’d better be as good as the Duffer Brothers in your craft as a screenwriter. Because you’re basically serving a bun without the meat. Mistaking the delivery mechanism for the sandwich, with the deliciousness it’s supposed to contain.
And why is Primary Structure so delicious?
Because, whether you’re writing a TV Comedy, TV Drama, Web-Series, Feature Film, MiniSeries, Short Film, Novel, Memoir or any other form of character driven content, it’s the Primary Structure that allows us to connect to characters.
Most of us will never confront The Upside Down or lose our child and connect to them thru Christmas lights or go on a magical quest with our 3 best friends to find our friend that’s missing.
But every single one of us knows what it’s like to want something.
And every single one of us knows what it’s like to make choices to try to get it.
Every single one of us knows what it’s like to confront an obstacle.
And every single one of us shares the desire to change.
So when we lock in the Primary Structure of a movie, script, TV show or anything else, it locks us into our audience at a primal, visceral level.
It allows us to meet the characters where they are right now and root for them. To meet the character where they are right now and say that’s me.
So if you’re building a pilot, a feature, or any other kind of dramatic writing, don’t wait for tomorrow to get the story started.
Ask yourself, what choice can your character make right now, today, that would change their lives forever– that would build the Primary Structure of their change?
And I’ll encourage you in your own journey as a writer to ask the same question of yourself.
What could you do today to build the Primary Structure of your life as a writer?
Decide what you want, and make the choices that you need to get there. Don’t set up for the future. Go for what you want right now, regardless of the obstacles, so you can launch your own journey of change.
Join me next week for part 2 of my Stranger Things 2 podcast, when I’ll be doing a full structural breakdown of the first episodes of each season, to show you what you can learn from them as a writer.
And in the meantime, if you need help finding some structure in your journey, come join us for our final classes of the year.
We’ve got TV Comedy with Jerry Perzigian, Emmy Winning showrunner of Married With Children, The Jeffersons & The Golden Girls starting up on November 16. Our our TV Bible Writing Class starting on November 14th. And for writers of both film and television, my last Write Your Screenplay class of the year starting up on November 16th. All classes are offered in NYC or Live Online, and include a free consultation with a professional writer.
*Edited for length and clarity