31 Must-Read Screenwriting Lessons From The Twilight Zone Creator Rod Serling
Rod Serling is known as one of the greatest and most prolific genre writers and producers in the history of television. He began his career when television was a new medium, initially thriving as a writer during the era of radio. He even managed to have a hand in iconic cinematic genre work, specifically with his co-screenwriting credit in the original Planet of the Apes — the now legendary surprise ending of which was a definite staple of Serling's work that was often found in his true legacy... The Twilight Zone.
Serling was the creator and executive producer of the classic series, which ran from 1959-1964. He also wrote an incredible 92 of the 156 episodes and had a direct hand in each one that he didn't write, often collaborating with the great contributing writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. He often drew on his own experience for many episodes, frequently about boxing, airline pilots, and military life — he had fought in World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
He passed away at the early age of 50 from a heart attack, but his legacy continues as The Twilight Zone has stood the test of time with episodes regularly airing during SyFy channel marathons on New Year's Weekends, as well as other holidays. Every season of the show is also available on Amazon Prime's streaming channel.
Here we go to the great one for his wise advice on writing. We'll elaborate on some of his most famous quotes on the subject to showcase how screenwriters can apply the wisdom to their screenwriting art and craft. We will also feature rare videos of him discussing his viewpoints and perspectives. Nearly all of the videos are under 2 minutes long, but collectively contain some of the best education on writing that any screenwriter can get their hands, ears, and eyes on. You can watch the whole collection of these interviews, and those that we haven't included, HERE.
1. “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man ... a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.”
This will clearly resonate with most fans that know The Twilight Zone. Serling's original opening narration — accompanied by the iconic music — is also a testament to where the best writing comes from. Between science and superstition. Between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. Within the dimension of imagination. It defines the origin of writing itself, and it even better defines where and how genre writing — science fiction, horror, thrillers — thrives.
2. "Being like everybody is like being nobody."
Serling certainly stood out during his day. He was an activist and critic of the corporate establishment embedded within television.
As screenwriters, this quote points to the fact that if you merely try to emulate other writers — trying to be like everyone else — you won't stand out on your own. If you try to copy scripts and movies that have already been successful, your work won't stand out either. You need to showcase what you can bring to the industry, not how you can write like the others.
3. “Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.”
When you're writing dialogue, you need to honestly see and hear the words come to life, even if it's through your own mind's eye or under your breath. Some of the best screenwriters will act out their dialogue in the comforts of their solitude while writing. This is how you can discover whether such dialogue will play well onscreen or if it's simply being used as bad exposition.
You, the writer, need to take on those roles as an actor would.
4. “You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.”
Screenwriters wait and wait for that big inspirational moment to come, often leading to endless months and months of waiting. Sometimes years. The best ideas come like a whisper in the night. It could be a single visual, a single line of dialogue, a single moment, a single character trait or arc, etc. Don't wait for some big explosion of inspiration. Listen.
5. “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”
Everyone has movie ideas. And almost everyone believes that those ideas are brilliant. While concept is everything in Hollywood, what really matters is the implementation of those brilliant concepts. Stop talking about the many, many great concepts you have. You certainly can't sell them as pitches without a script these days — unless you're an established and successful figure in Hollywood. You need to do the hard work and go write the scripts — and write them well.
6. “If you need drugs to be a good writer, you are not a good writer.”
A common misconception — whether it's for writing novels, plays, short stories, poems, movies, or songs — is that the best material often comes from a mind opened or unleashed by outside elements like alcohol and drugs. We've read plenty of interviews and biographies pointing to these iconic writers and musicians that conjured their works from drug or alcohol-induced hazes. But the truth is, just like Serling said, if you need drugs to be a good writer, you are not a good writer.
All you need is an excellent imagination and the courage to do the work.
7. “Imagination... its limits are only those of the mind itself.”
The only person limiting your imagination — as far as coming up with great concepts to write and figuring out creative solutions to problems within your scripts — is yourself. The possibilities are endless. You just have to use your mind to tap into them. Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's hard. But anything is possible.
8. “It has forever been thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms — all of them — may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.”
In short, writing matters. What you're trying to do as a writer — whether it's writing a novel, writing that next great song, writing the next iconic movie or television show — has purpose and can be an excellent weapon of expression and change.
9. “The writer's role is to menace the public's conscience. He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism, and he must focus on the issues of his time.”
Serling often injected important messages into this work, albeit hidden behind the veil of science fiction, horror, and suspense. Your writing should have outlooks and perspectives of what is going on in the world today. You can use your engaging stories and characters to communicate that.
10. "In terms of screenwriting adaptations, it's trying to cut out stuff that's extraneous, without doing damage to the original piece, because you owe a debt of some respect to the original author. That's why it was bought."
The best adaptations are not those that convey every moment in the source material. It's about finding the essence of it and translating that into the visual medium.
11. "Most screenplays, most motion pictures, owe much more to the screenplay."
Can we get an "Amen!" to that, brothers and sisters in screenwriting?
12. "This is, if not a lifetime process, it's awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, 'Huzzah! Eureka! I've got it!' and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn't work that way. It's a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it's hard."
It's hard being a writer. There are no overnight successes. Ever. When the media tries to portray that in their headlines they leave out the fact that the now successful writer likely survived over a decade or more of failure.
If you're not ready for that, this dream might not be for you.
13. "Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized."
Ideas are essentially an amalgam of your experiences in life. What you love, what you hate, what you fear, what you treasure, what makes you laugh, and what makes you cry.
14. "Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn't embrace it. I succumbed to it."
You need to be by yourself. You need to eradicate distractions when you're writing, and sometimes that means forcing yourself away from family, friends, and even jobs. It's a dedication that you don't necessarily love and embrace, but that which you succumb to because deep down, it's who you are.
15. "A basic 'must' for every writer: A simple solitude — physical & mental."
Your chosen profession or goal calls for you to be able to disconnect from the outside world — physically and mentally — and leap into the one that you're creating.
16. "If you're really a good writer and deserve that honored position, then by God, you'll write, and you'll be read, and you'll be produced somehow. It just works that way. If you're just a simple ordinary day-to-day craftsman, no different than most, then the likelihood is that you probably won't make it in writing."
Some are meant to be, and others are not. Regardless of which of those categories you fall under, at least you tried.
17. "You can be a hunchback and a dwarf and what-all. If you write beautifully, you can write beautifully."
It doesn't matter how old or how young you are. It doesn't matter what color skin you have. It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, or somewhere in between. It doesn't matter if you live in Los Angeles, New York, Wisconsin, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, or wherever. If you write beautifully, no one can take that away from you. And if you be creative and persistent, that work will be recognized.
18. "I suppose we think euphemistically that all writers write because they have something to say that is truthful and honest and pointed and important. And I suppose I subscribe to that, too. But God knows when I look back over thirty years of professional writing, I'm hard-pressed to come up with anything that's important. Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important."
This is coming from one of the greatest and most revered writers in history. Be humble.
19. "The writer... when he's rejected, that paper is rejected, in a sense, a sizable fragment of the writer is rejected as well. It's a piece of himself that's being turned down."
This is why rejection hurts so bad. It's not just the writing being rejected. It's our souls too because that's what screenwriters give — or should give — to every script. A piece of them.
20. "If it sounds good as you say it, likely as not it'll sound good when an actor's saying it."
Wise words when it comes to dialogue. Writers need to say those words, preferably in the manufactured mindsets of their characters. Either do it under your breath in the coffee shop or find an empty room and act it out. This process will not only change your dialogue for the better; it will change every aspect of your writing.
21. "I choose to think of TV audience as nameless, formless, faceless people who are all like me. And anything that I write, if I like it, they'll like it."
That's the mindset you need to have. Set out to please and entertain yourself. You can't possibly know how millions of other people are going to react — or even how a handful of Hollywood contacts reading your script will. But you can go in knowing that there are millions of people out there that like the movies you like.
22. "The most important thing about the first sale is for the very first time in your life something written has value and proven value because somebody has given you money for the words that you've written, and that's terribly important, it's a tremendous boon to the ego, to your sense of self-reliance, to your feeling about your own talent."
Your first paycheck is magical. There's no feeling like it.
23. "I remember the first sale I made was a hundred and fifty dollars for a radio script, and, as poor as I was, I didn't cash the check for three months. I kept showing it to people."
It's not just about the money.
24. "I would guess that the price of the script really is secondary. The credit is much more the essence."
This is so true, especially in today's film and television industry climate. Money can — and will — be spent. Credits last forever and mean the most to those holding the keys to the kingdom.
25. "There are a lot I'm proud of, and a lot I wish the hell I'd never written."
You will write some terrible scripts, make no mistake. It's a guarantee. The real secret to success is learning to tell the difference between what is excellent and what is horrible, and everything in between.
26. "I'm an affluent screenwriter and all that — I'm a known screenwriter, but I'm not in the fraternity of the very, very major people. I would say a guy like Ernie Lehman, William Goldman, and a few others are quite a cut above."
Again... be humble.
27. "There are millions of ways to not be writing."
28. "Ideas come from the Earth. They come from every human experience that you’ve either witnessed or have heard about, translated into your brain in your own sense of dialogue, in your own language form. Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized. Ideas are probably in the air, like little tiny items of ozone."
Next time you, the writer, are asked this endless question by your friends, family, peers, and acquaintances, recite this quote. Or you can now summarize by saying, "They come from The Twilight Zone."
29. "Somehow, some way, incredibly enough, good writing ultimately gets recognized. If you're a really good writer and deserve that honored position, then by God, you'll write, and you'll be read."
There's a very true saying floating around in Hollywood today — the cream will rise. If you've honed your craft, if the writing is amazing, if the concepts are original, if the delivery is solid, and if you have your own voice — the cream will rise.
30. "I have never written beneath myself. I have never written anything that I didn't want my name attached to. I have probed deeper in some scripts, and I've been more successful in some than others. But all of them that have been on, you know, I'll take my lick. They're mine, and that's the way I wanted them."
Own your writing, whether it's good, bad, or somewhere in between. Own it.
31. "You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone."
When you embark on that next screenplay, you are exploring The Twilight Zone. Most people don't understand it. Most people don't know how, where, and why writers get their ideas. They don't know how they conjure those characters. This is where we go — The Twilight Zone. We create sounds, visuals, and we affect the mind of the audience and the reader. We do so by sometimes taking them into the shadows to thrill or frighten. We accompany that by injecting substance, ideas, and notions.
We'll see you in The Twilight Zone, Mr. Serling.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies