In this post, I’m going to go through each of the three seasons of Stranger Things and analyze them in terms of basic story structure and pacing. Before jumping in, I want to first get some of the jargon out of the way. For purposes of this discussion an “A Story” is the central conflict of the season, while a “B Story” is a secondary story. Subplots, by contrast, are smaller conflicts within a larger story, but a B Story will have a separate protagonist acting (largely) independent from the A Story. There’s also the Inciting Incident. I realize this isn’t how it’s always defined, but here I’m going to be referring to whatever incident sets the protagonist into action towards resolving the story’s central conflict; it’s not specifically the “start” of the plot, but specifically when the protagonist becomes consciously involved.
A Story — “The Demogorgon.” This one is pretty straight forward. Mike is the protagonist, and the central conflict is rescuing Will. The inciting incident is “Will could have cast protection, but he chose to cast fireball.” The characters still don’t know what the threat is, but by mid-latef episode 1, the party has purposefully set out on its adventure.
B Story (1) — “The Lights.” Here we get Joyce’s story, though the central conflict is again rescuing Will. The inciting incident here is after the phone burns out a second time, and Will starts messing with the lights and plays The Clash on the stereo. This is when Joyce begins to take charge in trying to contact Will.
B Story (2) — “The Photo.” This is Nancy’s story, and instead of searching for Will, Nancy is mostly concerned with finding Barb. While we could say the inciting incident is when Nancy first goes back to Steve’s house, she doesn’t really get set into action until she tapes the photo back together and begins investigating what she saw in the woods at Steve’s.
There’s two things that make the structure of Season 1 work so well. The first is the convergence of the A Story and B Stories into a single A Story. This allows the ending to have a tremendous punch as we’re not being sidetracked with wrapping up secondary plot lines.
The second thing is the pacing. We get the inciting incident of the A Story in the middle of episode 1, B Story (1) at the end of episode 2, and B Story (2) in the middle of episode 4. The show simultaneously advances the established plot lines while setting new wheels in motion. Having characters be at different points in their investigation adds a lot of dramatic irony (we understand connections the characters haven’t made), as well as keeping the action from feeling repetitive. Great job, Duffer Brothers.
And just to demonstrate how effective Season 1’s structure is, you probably didn’t even notice a pretty significant issue, which is that the protagonist doesn’t resolve the central conflict. It’s not about defeating the demogorgon, where at least Mike is present. The real central conflict in the story is rescuing Will, which is done by Joyce and Hopper. Ordinarily, having two secondary characters be the ones to resolve the central conflict would feel deeply unsatisfying, but the structure and pacing is otherwise so good, and the ending so damn exciting, that we just don’t notice.
Obviously this season got a lot of criticism for some of its structure, specifically episode 7, but let’s break it down the same way to see just how it works (or didn’t work).
A Story (1) — “The Mind Flayer.” I’m going to say the protagonist is again Mike, and the objective is rescuing Will, though it’s somewhat less clear cut compared to season 1. You could argue the protagonist is actually Will, but he gets sidelined at the end of Episode 5. After that, the only time Will is really active is in the secret Morse Code message, and that’s too little for a protagonist to do in the entire last third of a season. The season echoes the first in a lot of ways, and it sure seems like it’s meant to be A Mike Story. The inciting incident here is when the characters discover that Will’s dreams aren’t dreams, but are a vision of something happening now.
A Story (2) — “Vines.” This is Hopper’s story where he investigates whatever is going on with the pumpkins and suspects Hawkins Lab is behind it. This story is set in motion when Hopper goes out to the second pumpkin farm — he suspects something other than feuding farmers at the first pumpkin patch, but doesn’t really get going until the second one.
B Story (1) — “Justice for Barb.” Season 2 gives us Nancy as the protagonist in another B story, this time trying to get closure for Barb’s parents (and for herself), and revenge against the Hawkins Lab. The inciting incident here is Nancy’s conversation with Jonathan and getting the idea for recording a confession from the lab — she sees Barb’s parents in distress earlier, but doesn’t actually get put into motion until later.
B Story (2) — “Momma?” Easily the most criticized element of Season 2, with most people pointing to episode 7 as the problem. But, let’s back up a little bit and note that Eleven’s real goal in her B Story is to find her mother, and this story begins after discovering the hidden files in Hopper’s cabin. What probably most undermined episode 7 is that the Momma? plot has suddenly changed into a new plot, and did so extremely late in the season.
With these four story lines in place, we can look at the pacing of the season and note some pretty stark differences from Season 1.
First, the story lines don’t converge. Eleven’s search for her family doesn’t drive her towards the A Stories, instead A Story (1) forces her out of her B Story. The Justice for Barb story does’t really interact with the A Stories either or Eleven’s B Story at all. Only the two A Stories converge, but we’re left with two other threads dangling on their own.
Second is the pacing. Will tells Mike about his visions near the end of episode 2, but Mike doesn’t know Will is in any danger until the start of episode 4, but then is put on hold until the end of episode 5. Probably seems basic, but putting the inciting incident for your A Story at the middle of the season is a bad idea; the season has to spend more time on the Dart subplot than on Mike dealing with the Mind Flayer; Dart was fun, but wasn’t the central conflict. Hopper, by contrast, gets set in motion in the middle of episode 2; episode 1 would have been better, but this isn’t too bad. Nancy’s story is set in motion in the middle of episode 3, while Eleven’s doesn’t get going until the middle of episode 4.
While it worked in Season 1 to have new plots set in motion over several different episodes, it doesn’t work for Season 2. The reason is because the stories are too remote from each other. Rather than giving the story a sense of driving momentum, the new plot lines in Season 2 prove to be a distraction. The two B Stories are fine on their own, but in a season that already has two A Stories, the pacing won’t allow for two B Stories that don’t converge with or advance the A Stories.
This is what got me looking at the structure of the other two seasons, because the structure of Season 3 felt really unusual on my first watch through. Let’s start by looking at what the A Story of Season 3 is. Once again we have the supernatural threat and the government threat; this time it’s the Demogorgon’s Flesh Golem and the Russians. However, while in the previous two seasons, dealing with the monster threat has been the primary focus, with the government being less important, in Season 3 both the Russian threat and the Flesh Golem are defeated by destroying the Russian portal weapon. The Battle of Starcourt is more about holding off the monster and mitigating losses rather than actually defeating it (by contrast, the Season 2 exorcism by fire was central to defeating the Mind Flayer, and closing the gate was more denouement).
With that in mind, I think the season looks something like this:
A Story (1) — “Magnets.” This is Hopper and Joyce’s investigation, and it’s hard to say who is the protagonist. Joyce certainly gets the investigation started, but I think once Hopper gets involved he’s definitively in the driver’s seat. The action sequences with Hopper fighting Gregori the T-1000 certainly put more of the emphasis on him. If we take Hopper as the protagonist in this story, then the inciting incident is the investigation into the abandoned Hawkins Lab.
A Story (2) — “The Flesh Golem.” I don’t recall the monster being given a name on the show, and since the Necromancer was my favorite Diablo II class, I’m calling it the Flesh Golem (it’s not the Mind Flayer itself). Again, it’s hard to say who the protagonist is. In the previous two monster plots, it’s been Mike, but he has a much-reduced role here. A good candidate is Eleven, since it’s after her, but Max is also pretty central to the story. I’m going to say that the protagonist is basically The Party. Eleven and Max first learn that something is up with Billy after playing their spying game, so we’ll take that as the inciting incident.
B Story (1) — “Silver Cat.” Once again we get an ensemble of protagonists, with Steve and Dustin being given equal importance, and Baskin Robin quickly rising to the same level. This story really kicks off with the Indiana Flyer and the characters learning not just that they found a random Russian transmission, but that it’s coming from the mall. That’s when the story goes from fun summertime diversion to an actual quest the characters are on.
B Story (2) — “Case of the Missing Rats.” Nancy is investigating weird happenings around Hawkins, while getting berated by a group of cartoon stereotypes. As with the Silver Cat plot, it takes a bit of time for the characters to really get into action. Only when Nancy discovers the feral Mrs. Driscoll does she put down the newspaper scoop motivation and switch to “oh shit, it’s happening again” mode.
Unlike Season 2, in Season 3 we do get the plots converging. B Story (1) merges into A Story (1), and B Story (2) merges into A Story (2). So far, so good. Even our two A Stories become linked, and there’s a satisfying sense of unity to the climactic action, rather than the somewhat disconnected threads in the conclusion of Season 2.
However, there is still a bit of a pacing issue. A Story (1) doesn’t really kick off until near the end of episode 3, while A Story (2) begins in the episode 3 cold open. The reason for this delay is of course because we get more from the perspective of the antagonists, both the cold open with the Russians as well as all of Billy’s early scenes. I found Billy’s story to be pretty interesting, but the show goes into dangerous territory here by keeping the protagonists from getting into the story until episode 3 in an 8 episode season.
We’re essentially getting a lot of information about Billy and what the characters have been up to since Season 2. I think the pacing would have been improved by moving the inciting incidents up, and then weaving in the Eleven/Mike/Hopper tension afterwards. Compare this against Season 1 and how we get the backstory with Will and Jonathan’s dad, Eleven’s origins, and Hopper’s daughter well after the primary action is underway.
Overall, it’s not a huge issue, and I think it’s mostly just episode 2 that feels sluggish. By the end of Season 1 Episode 2, Eleven has revealed her telekinetic powers, talked about the danger-danger, and shown the party that Will is in the Upside Down, hiding from the Demogorgon. And then there’s enough time left in the episode for Joyce to get the second call, have the lights and stereo go crazy, and the monster try to break through the wall, all before the final scene outside with Barb. By the end of Season 3 Episode 2, the main party (now Mike, Will, Lucas, Eleven, and Max) don’t even know there’s a threat. Once Season 3 hits its stride, the pacing is really good, but it lacks the same intense drive that Season 1 had right out the gate.