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January 10, 2023

Breaking Down Stranger Things Pilot

You’d be hard-pressed to find another show that debuted in the 2010s that had quite as much influence as Stranger Things. The Netflix hit ushered in an entire era of 80s nostalgia that still hasn’t quite subsided.

So, considering its incredible success, it’s a good idea to return to the Stranger Things pilot that started it all and see what we can learn about writing a great pilot

What is Stranger Things all about? 

Stranger Things is a show that’s heavily indebted to the novels of Stephen King and the horror films of the 1980s. In essence, the show is about a group of 80s kids who, after encountering a strange character called Eleven, discover a supernatural world full of monsters and creatures that are seeping into reality.

With hefty references to Lovecraft, Carpenter, and Yuzna, the show is an expansive horror-based epic. There are secret organizations, conspiracies, romance, tragedy, and plenty of nostalgia. 

There’s one element that is far more important than all that surface-level stuff though: character. Stranger Things is incredible at building a memorable, charming, and compelling cast of characters who drive the plot along.

So, let's get to know them.

Who are the main characters in Stranger Things

Let’s focus exclusively on the main characters in the very first episode, though do bear in mind they grow older as the show goes on. 

Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard)

Mike is a middle-school kid, a little dorky for the time, but fiercely loyal to his friends. He’s a principled kid whose rashness gets him into trouble a lot. 

Mike Wheeler from Stranger Things dressed in a colorful jumper with an 80s style haircut
The character Mike Wheeler is a principled kid.

Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown)

Eleven is a girl with telepathic abilities that were cultivated since her birth in a government lab. She’s recently escaped and is trying to adjust to life in the wider world.

Jim Hopper (David Harbour)

Jim is the Sheriff of Hawkins, the town where most of Stranger Things takes place. He’s lazy and doesn’t care about his job, but soon becomes a principled and protective father figure to those around him.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder)

Joyce is the mother of Will, whose disappearance starts off the story. She doesn’t earn much. She works a lot to keep her family afloat, but the disappearance of Will send her over the edge, even if her seemingly crazy theories about where Will might have gone may turn out to be correct.

Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer)

Mike’s older sister. Nancy is bookish and fiercely smart. However, she has found herself newly popular becuase of her boyfriend from the popular kids. As a result she struggles to be loyal to her old friends.

Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo)

One of Mike’s best friends. Dustin has cleidocranial dysplasia which causes him to lisp. But he doesn’t let it get him down. He’s brash, excitable, and passionate about the world of science and fantasy.

Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin)

Another one of Mike’s friends. Lucas is a skeptic in the group and is reluctant to embrace Eleven in case it changes things, but he soon becomes a loyal fighter for his friends.

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)

Will is the friend of Mike, Dustin, and Lucas who goes missing at the beginning of the show. Will is an odd-duck, not quite at home in his own skin, bullied, but loved by his family and friends. 

Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton)

Jonathan is Will’s older brother. A classmate of Nancy’s, Jonathan is something of a social outcast among his classmates. But despite his social awkwardness, he does everything he can to help his Mom keep the family financially stable.

Breaking down the Stranger Things pilot 

Let’s break down the Stranger Things pilot script to understand what we can learn from it. 


Stranger Things begins with a cold open of a scientist in an underground lab running away from an unseen threat. Just as he thinks he’s gotten away, he is caught by the monster in the elevator and meets a grisly end.

This functions both as an introduction to the threat that will affect the main characters shortly, but also as a tone primer. It’s very indicative of 80s horror.

Set-up and inciting incident

First we meet Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will, all playing D&D in a basement. They’re clearly close friends and heavily invested in the game. Mike’s mom makes them stop for the night and they say goodbye, riding home on their bicycles. 

However, Will splits off from the group and takes a lonely road on his way home. On his way, he crashes his bike, and something seems to chase him. He runs home and tries to lock the unseen assailant away, but it captures him and seems to make Will disappear into thin air.

The next morning we meet Will’s family, Joyce and Jonathan, both highly-strung and with financial issues. They realize that Will isn’t home and begin to worry about where he might be, so Joyce calls the police.

So far this all seems like a strange missing kid story, but things get weirder when the final main character emerges. 

Turn to act two

A girl with a shaved head stumbles through the woods and sneaks into a burger joint to steal some food. This is Eleven, an almost mute kid who looks worse for wear. Somehow she is connected to everything else, we just don’t know how yet. 

Eleven from Stranger Things Wiki. She has short hair and looks angry. There are people out of focus behind her on what appears to be a hill.
Eleven from Stranger Things is somewhat mute when we first meet her

Promise of the premise 

The boys go to school, wondering where Will is, and we see that they are bullied and outcasts. However, they have a clear affinity for their science teacher who shows them a new FM radio the school got. The boys are overjoyed but are interrupted when Hopper enters the school.

We met Hopper, the local police chief, a little earlier. Being uninterested in his job, he gets into work the next day he doesn’t have much concern for Joyce who wants him to investigate her son’s disappearance. 

In the local high school, we also follow Nancy, Mike’s sister, and her new boyfriend Steve. Their relationship is budding, and they arrange to meet up later that night. 

Meanwhile, Joyce is growing more anxious about Will. She finds a secret hideaway that Will had and remembers happier times with him. 

Eleven is caught by the owner of the burger joint and she thinks she’s in trouble, but instead the owner tries to help her out by giving her some food. 


Back at the school, the boys learn that Hopper is trying to figure out where Will may have gone. The boys tell him the road that Will would use to get home on his bike. They grow increasingly concerned when they realize that Will might not be alright. The boys offer to help go and search. However, they are explicitly told not to go outside as it might not be safe. 


The boys are justifiably very concerned. They are very frustrated that they’re not allowed to go and help the police on their search.

Mike erupts at the dinner table in anger. 

Meanwhile, on the search, Hopper finds Will’s bike. That’s not a good sign, because Hopper theorizes that a kid would never leave their bike behind unless something terrible happened.

Hopper brings the bike to Joyce and Jonathan, and starts investigating things seriously.

Hopper’s demeanor change tells Joyce that her son is not okay.

Turn to three

That night Hopper organizes a search with local townspeople. We learn that he used to have a daughter who died some years back. 

The boys have had enough and use their walkie-talkies to organize their own impromptu search, sneaking out of their houses, and heading out into the raining woods. 

Meanwhile, the burger joint owner called social services to come look after Eleven. However, when the social services agent arrives, she shoots the owner in the head and hunts for Eleven. Clearly, Eleven is mixed up in some serious dealings. She escapes the joint and runs into the woods.


The boys search the woods, soaked, and desperate. We also see Nancy and Steve at home, flirting, deepening their relationship as Steve assures Nancy that she’s “not just another notch on his belt”.

At the same time, Joyce and Jonathan reminisce about Will as they try to choose the right photo to put on the missing poster. Joyce answers the phone after it rings and hears a strange breathing on the other end which she recognizes as Will’s breathing. 

Closing image

The boys consider going back home, their rescue mission a failure, but just at the final moment, they stumble into Eleven who had run into the woods. Eleven seems confused, as are the boys.

What can we learn from the Stranger Things pilot? 

As you can see, the Stranger Things pilot had a lot of work to do but it miraculously introduces the central characters, central themes, and dilemmas within 45 minutes. This is a real masterclass of a script to analyse if you’re writing a story with a big cast.

For more tips and tricks on writing the best screenplay be sure to keep your eye on the Arc Studio blog. You can also download the free version of the software today to ensure your scripts are formatted professionally from the get-go.


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Breaking Down Stranger Things Pilot
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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