Here are screenwriting tips gleaned from Twilight Zone mastermind Rod Serling, first published as part of “First Draft,” a screenwriting series we first published with ScreenCraft back in 2016.
Rod Serling, one of the greatest and most prolific genre writers and producers in history, 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 clear 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 92 of the 156 episodes and had a direct hand in each and every 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.
Here we go to the great one for his wise advice on writing. I’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. I 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 what may be 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. “Being like everybody is like being nobody.”
If you simply try to emulate other writers, 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.
2. “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 truly 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.
3. “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 inspirational moment to come, often leading to endless months, sometimes years, of waiting. The best ideas come like whispers in the night. They could be a single visual, a line of dialogue, a character trait or arc, etc. Don’t wait for some big explosion of inspiration. Listen.
4. “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”
Everyone has movie ideas. Almost everyone believes 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 great concepts you have. You certainly can’t sell them as pitches without a script (unless you’re an established and successful figure in Hollywood). You need to do the hard work and write the scripts.
5. “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, all you need is an excellent imagination and the courage to do the work.
6. “Imagination: Its limits are only those of the mind itself.”
The only person limiting your imagination—when coming up with concepts and figuring out creative solutions to problems within your scripts—is yourself. Apply your mind to tap into the possibilities.
Writing matters. What you’re trying to do as a writer—whether it’s writing a novel, a song, a film, or television show—has purpose and can be a weapon of expression and change.
8. “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 his work, albeit hidden behind the veil of science-fiction, horror and suspense. Your writing should have perspectives on what is happening in the world around you. You can use your engaging stories and characters to communicate that.
The best adaptations are not those that convey every moment in the source material. It’s about finding the core essence of it and translating that into the visual medium.
10. “Most screenplays, most motion pictures, owe much more to the screenplay.”
Can we get an Amen! to that, brothers and sisters in screenwriting?
11. “This is, if not a lifetime process, awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, more observant, more tempered, much wiser over a period of time passing. It is not something 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 11 days. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”
There are no overnight successes. 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.
Ideas are an amalgam of your experiences in life—what you love, hate, fear, treasure, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry.
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.
14. “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.
15. “If you’re 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.