Scoops ahoy, friend!
Fissure writhing wetly.
Tentacles undulating moistly.
Disturbing choral music intensifies.
This week's letter is a celebration of the best thing on Netflix: Stranger Things subtitles.
But more than that, it's a celebration of writing itself! And of you... and me... and the difference a good writer can make to... well, anything.
Especially when the writer has creative free rein.
Which only happens when someone has that writer's back.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up...
[ferocious guitar riff]
If you aren't a fan of Netflix's Stranger Things (or you haven't watched it with the closed-captioning turned on), you've missed glorious phrases like those above. And more.
Stranger Things didn't invent subtitles—but did bring them to a new level.
Its subtitles are pulpy and verbose and sometimes a little gross. (Moist, moistly are used a lot.)
The point of subtitles is to give deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers the same immersive experience of slapping tentacles squelching and undulating moistly as hearing viewers.
They've also getting lots of love from people who turn the subtitles on just for the joy of reading them. (Which includes me—I hear shows better that way.) (You, too?)
Maybe you've never given much thought to subtitles.
Maybe you assumed—like I did—that subtitles are auto-captioned? That behind-the-scenes a generic, bloodless AI tool is auto-generating them with no joy or love in its heart?
Sometimes, yes. But not in this case.
* * *
[tense pause, industrial synth music plays]
The Stranger Things captions are created by a team led by Jeff T, a Netflix subtitles writer. The team views the final cut of each show and hand-selects words and descriptions with the same care that a jeweler selects and polishes a stone before <click!>... perfection!
Jeff and his team caption dialogue. But also they describe sounds, music, silence, feelings... the whole VIBE.
You can feel them having fun. You can sense the playfulness. You imagine the way they make themselves laugh there in the writer's room with a cheeky phrase or occasional Dungeons & Dragons Easter egg
It's over the top because that's the ethos of Stranger Things, isn't it.
[low piano note signals abrupt shift to a more serious tone]
...Jeff and his team layer in all the things that create tension and beauty. All the things that gross you out and drag you into the story so you're a little jumpy when you take your dog out at night. (Did that tree shadow just... move?)
* * *
Here are a few reasons Stranger Things subtitles are worth celebrating today.
▶️ Machines can do this work. Yet writers do it better.
Lemme get salty for a second.
If I had a Dogecoin for every time I heard the Internet say that ROBOTS WILL WRITE EVERYTHING by the year x... (accompanied by someone's hair on fire and everything is on fire and the sound you hear is all the books in the Library of Congress imploding leaving behind a mushroom cloud that blooms in the flat, artless sky...).
If I had a Dogecoin for every time I heard that robots-will-write-for-us mantra... I'd be writing this from a Mediterranean villa wearing a bathrobe stitched with the wistful sighs of Humanities majors.
[small chuckling sound]
Listen, I'm a realist.
Will AI affect writers like you and me? Sure. Of course.
In fact, it already is. I talk about it in the new edition of Everybody Writes
, due out this October.
AI will cheerfully and happily whistle its way through all the mundane, data-driven repetitive work most of us don't enjoy anyway.
AI writing tools are house-elf helpers. They are not wholesale replacements booting us out of our jobs, consigning us to passively sit around and watch sit-coms penned by our Roombas.
Let's calm down about this whole robot-writing phenomenon.
- You know what robots can easily create? Subtitles.
- You know what Netflix is being celebrated for with Stranger Things? Besides Kate Bush? Subtitles written by humans.
That tells us something, doesn't it? Writers matter.
Clever artists like you and me who write with creativity, craft, and care elevate a project from expected to unexpected. From ho-hum to something special. From "monster enters" to "wet tentacles loudly slap the cement floor."
Said another way: Would anyone be talking about Stranger Things subtitles without Jeff T? No. [tender, emotional music swells]
* * *
▶️ Style Guides liberate creativity.
The biggest question I wondered when I read those Stranger Things subtitles was... HOW?
HOW did Jeff T and his team get buy-in on that intense, disturbing, gibberish-ating language that reads like the team was paid by the adverb? HOW did they toss in Easter eggs? HOW did they get away with it?
HOW DID JEFF'S TEAM DO IT? Because they had permission to create from a place as wild and lawless as the Upside Down itself.
The guidelines cover the basics (reading speed, line breaks). All the subtitles are reviewed by an editor of sorts, who ensures the clarity, accuracy, relatability of the language. But outside of that, the writers can go absolu-nutty.
My favorite two lines from the English Timed Text Style Guide could represent a section in a writing Master Class—for subtitles or otherwise:
- "Be detailed and descriptive, use adverbs where appropriate when describing sounds and music, describe voices, speed of speech, volume of sound."
- "Describe the sounds and audio as opposed to visual elements or actions."
The best way to strengthen your writing is always to add a second sense—describe what you hear, taste, feel... not just what you see. (I also talk about this in the second edition of Everybody Writes
and you knew I was gonna drop another link there didn't you.) 😉
▶️ Last point: Opportunity lives where your audience least expects it.
These are subtitles, friends. SUBTITLES. A nothing, throwaway string of writing that most would pay zero attention to.