Rod Serling wrote more than half of all the scripts for the original “Twilight Zone” show that aired from 1959-1964. While Hollywood has made numerous reboots of “The Twilight Zone,” most of those reboots have failed to capture the imagination of the public like the original series. The reason for this is simple: Rod Serling.
Rod Serling got started writing radio plays and then shifted into teleplays as television grew in popularity. That meant he wrote scripts from the perspective of a playwright who had to work with a limited budget. That forced him to work with minimal scene locations, characters, and special effects.
Rather than focus on visual action involving special effects, Rod Serling’s scripts largely focus on drama through character conflict. To give his dramas even greater importance, most of his scripts center around an injustice or warning to people that’s still applicable today.
One of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which shows how a friendly neighborhood can descend into chaos the moment they suspect someone doesn’t belong. On the surface, these people are looking for an alien intruder from space, but in reality, the drama is about the dangers of searching for a scapegoat that shows how quickly fear can turn people against their own friends.
Another famous episode is “The Obsolete Man” where a librarian in the future is sentenced to death by a government that has banned books. Then the librarian finds a way to get revenge on the chancellor who sentenced him to death. Although this episode might seem like a clever cat-and-mouse game of revenge, it serves as a warning that totalitarianism is nothing more than a thin disguise that masks the cruelty of people.
Rod Serling rarely wrote stories just for a shock or twist ending, but to make a point, and that’s the key to telling a great story. Most of the “Twilight Zone” reboot episodes tend to focus on shock, horror, and twist endings but without the drama and deeper meaning that Rod Serling injected in most of his stories.
Just watch a bad movie and notice that it fails to tell us anything about life. Then watch a great movie like “The Shawshank Redemption” and notice the strong emotional impact that stories gives us that weaker movies do not.
What most people don’t realize is that after CBS cancelled “The Twilight Zone,” they let Rod Serling create a new TV Western series called “The Loner.” Although “The Loner” only ran for one season before getting cancelled, the many episodes that Rod Serling wrote for this series focus on drama and a deeper meaning.
In an episode called “The Homecoming of Lemuel Stove,” the hero (a white man), gets saved by a former slave and former Union solder. Together, the hero and this black soldier head to a town where the black soldier’s father lives – only to find out that the townspeople had lynched the black soldier’s father the night before.
Not only does this immediately create a sense of drama and conflict, but it also forces us to deal with the issue of racism, creating an even greater sense of emotional intensity that we can relate to our own lives.
If you want to write better stories, study playwrights like Rod Serling. If you want your stories to have a lasting impact, you need to write stories that are more than just action.