Watching the Twilight Zone as a Learning Tool

TV shows are like mini-movies in themselves and if you study the structure of telling a story through a teleplay, you can learn to apply those same principles to screenwriting as well.

I grew up watching reruns of the “Twilight Zone” on late night TV. I still remember waiting up late at night to watch each episode and then either going to bed thrilled with what I just saw, or feeling utterly depressed at watching a pitiful episode that absolutely sucked.

If you know little about the “Twilight Zone,” you can buy the entire DVD collection of all five seasons. Generally, the shows from seasons one to three are the best. Season four consists of expanded one hour shows of uneven quality, while season five generally contains episodes where the writers ran out of ideas and focused on the surprise element or bizarre without the corresponding story and character development to back it up.

The main reason to watch these old “Twilight Zone” episodes is to see how to tell a story in a condensed amount of time and without relying on special effects. The problem with too many movies is that the director seems to think that more computer-generated special effects can make up for the lack of a compelling story. Watching fireworks is fun for about ten minutes. Watching computer-generated explosions for an entire movie is not.

The first thing to watch with the good “Twilight Zone” episodes is how each show opening grabs your attention, which in a screenplay would be called the Inciting Incident. The most common Twilight Zone episode grabs the audience’s attention by showing an unusual event.

Sometimes this unusual event occurs right away, such as a character watching a sunrise consisting of two suns. That immediately tells us that the story takes place on a planet other than Earth. Another example might be two state troopers investigating something that crashed in a frozen lake with footsteps leading through the snow from the lake to a nearby diner. Such an unusual event immediately piques our curiosity and makes us want to figure out what’s happening.

More often, this unusual event appears contrasted with a seemingly normal event, which creates greater contrast. For example, we might see a typical, lazy day in an ordinary suburb, and suddenly a meteor flashes through the sky. Or we might see a woman painting a blazing sun on a hot summer day, and then slowly learn that this isn’t a typical hot summer day, but the beginning of something catastrophic.

After the beginning sets the stage for the story, the middle part (Rising Action) reveals the characters’ goals and overcoming obstacles to reach that goal. Then just as quickly, the story must end.

Common endings are a surprise twist, where we learn what we’ve seen earlier is something completely different in hindsight. Such twist endings can work in movies like “The Sixth Sense,” but relying on a trick ending alone will likely create a dull movie. Plus, if audiences expect a trick ending, they’ll constantly look for one and fail to enjoy the movie for what it is. Use trick endings sparingly or you could wind up like O. Henry or M. Night Shyamalan, constantly thinking up surprise endings to the detriment of a decent story.

The more common type of Twilight Zone ending shows the end result of the characters’ efforts to reach a goal. Often times they reach their goal with catastrophic consequences. Sometimes they reach a goal and achieve a victory far different than the one they thought they were achieving. What made the better Twilight Zone episodes so memorable was the lessons each character learned at the end. The stories weren’t just about the unusual or bizarre, but about a character striving to reach a goal and learning from the final result.

Not surprisingly, that’s also what makes a good movie. Nobody cares if a character reaches a goal. What audiences do care about is that the main character learns something, because when the main character is changed by their story, then we the audience member are often changed as well.

It’s this connection to the main character or hero that makes for a compelling movie. Make the audience experience the emotional roller coaster that your main character goes through and they’ll remember your movie long after they forget the details of the plot.

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