7 Story Secrets from Netflix

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Pop culture and media historians will be examining Netflix for decades to come, trying to figure out how a company that began as a membership-based DVD rental program managed to, in a short amount of time, change the television landscape, bring chaos to the cable industry, and crash the Emmy awards. It’s a good time to be a storyteller, and Netflix is one reason why. The company’s constant presentation of engaging original content has become a must-have for literally millions of homes across the world. Here are seven secrets we can use to tell better stories by looking at Netflix and a few of their most popular shows.



1. Don’t Be Afraid To Go Back To Basics

Netflix’s most recent hit has touched on a generation’s personal nostalgia and love for the tropes and styles of storytelling from 30 years ago. So much so, that it’s easy to lose the fact that the show has a solid mythological structure with simple narrative elements. There’s a clear central hero (Mike), who’s taken on the mantle of the show’s external goal – to rescue Will Byers. With the help of a comic duo (Dustin and Lucas), Mike encounters a magical elixir in the form of Seven, and thwarts the evil plot of the villain, Dr. Martin Brenner. In many ways, Stranger Things is a lesson in simple storytelling. Most storytellers struggle with making their narratives too complex. Don’t be afraid to go back to basics.



2. Origin Stories Are Irresistible

Many of the first stories we have on human record are themed around cosmology – the origin of how we got here. We’ve been enamored with origin stories since the beginning. We don’t even have to be interested in a subject, in and of its self, to be intrigued by how it began and came to be. Netflix’s newest show, The Get Down, deals with the origins of hip hop music as part of its exploration. However, at the end of the day, the story is about a young hero named Zeke and whether making his mark in the world will force him to leave his neighborhood, everyone he knows, and everything he loves. Discovering that the origin of a musical form was filled with stories of sacrifice, betrayal, and love brings an audience to a subject that they might never have explored otherwise.



3. Challenge The Stereotypes

The premise of Orange is the New Black is based around a challenge of our own stereotypes. When we think of who the average woman in a female prison is, most of us do not picture Piper. Using the classic “fish out of water” storytelling device, we discover as much about ourselves and how we see people as we do about the characters we engage. Many of the inmates embody the things that are often discarded or written off in American culture. Seeing the beauty in the women of Litchfield Prison causes us to reconsider the snap judgements we make about people and their stories. It challenges our stereotypes which, while difficult, is one of the most powerful effects a story can have.



4. Who A Character Is Can Be More Important Than What They Do

Once we can finally stop singing along with the highly addictive theme song of the show, we find a valuable narrative treasure hidden in the world of Kimmy Schmidt. Few devotees of the show could outline all the goals Kimmy has to accomplish in each episode. These seem secondary to the show. It’s who Kimmy is that we are fascinated by. Her relationship with Titus is more interesting than just about any task we could give her character. The plot lines and devices in the show all exist to highlight the quirks, eccentricities, and humor of Kimmy and her world – and they work brilliantly.



5. Simplicity + Mystery = Engagement

Throughout the history of story, there have been only a few that have the power to enchant both young and old, both rich and poor, both the simple and complex. These stories often use a timeless formula to engage their audience. Combining simplicity and mystery is a balancing act. Many writers have difficulty with simplicity. Our inclination is that more plot, more scenarios, and more characters will equal more interest. This is rarely the case, however. Mystery can be a difficult balance to achieve as well. Giving the audience enough information so that they don’t become confused, while leaving some things to the imagination so that people stay interested, is a craft in and of its self. The Little Prince strikes that delicate balance in a way so that any audience member can be immersed in its narrative.

[Read John’s interview with The Little Prince‘s director Mark Osborne and voice star Mackenzie Foy.]



6. Characters Are King

Though Netflix does not release numbers about their audience size, if cultural discussions and press are any indication, Making A Murderer has to have been one of their most popular shows. Stories of injustice and cover ups are enough to attract an audience. However, what keeps them coming back are the characters. Though a documentary, the program features characters that feel taken from the most creative works of fiction. The show’s audience has remained concerned and curious about the people on the show long after the final episode of the season. This can only be ascribed to the connection people felt to the personalities they saw on screen – the characters in the show.



7. Don’t Be Afraid To Make Your Heroes Flawed

One of Netflix’s earliest hits and biggest surprises was a show that revolved around a despicable couple and their rise to political power – House of Cards. The show proved that protagonists don’t have to be good people. The Underwoods are everything we hate about politicians, but we still find ourselves rooting for them. Making a heroine flawed does not keep an audience from going along with her on the journey. We can forgive most anything a character says or does as long as we believe their arc is authentic. Perhaps, the only thing audiences never forgive is a boring character.


John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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