The Write Stuff
“This is a series for the storyteller, because it’s our thinking that an audience will always sit still, and listen [to], and watch a well-told story.”
That quote by Rod Serling is from a short film made in 1959 to interest potential sponsors in buying ad time on a brand-new series called The Twilight Zone. It’s a telling remark — one that, I believe, offers a key insight into why the show succeeded, even beyond Serling’s expectations. It helps us understand why the show still appeals more than 50 years later.
In short, Serling had the formula correct from the start: tell a good story.
Think of an episode like a wheel. There is acting, directing, music, special effects. All of those elements are important, but they’re like the spokes of the wheel. They won’t work unless they’re attached firmly to something strong and well-structured: a hub.
Well, the story is like the hub. And where do stories come from? From storytellers. And in Serling’s America, storytellers (i.e., writers) were turning to a medium that was still fairly new then: television. He knew the series would rise and fall on the quality of the stories it told.
Most of these stories, fortunately, would come from his typewriter. But even a writer as creative and prolific as Serling couldn’t write every episode. So he turned to the best writers he could find — talented storytellers whose work fit within the Zone mold: Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson, to name the most notable.
It’s a mark of Serling’s decency that he was never one to hog the spotlight. Despite his justifiable fame, he freely shared credit with others. When he accepted his second Emmy award for The Twilight Zone in 1961, he thanked his fellow “writing gremlins”, mentioned Matheson, Beamont and Johnson by name, and added, holding up the Emmy: “Come on over, fellas, and we’ll carve it up like a turkey.”
This generous attitude, coupled with an understanding of how central the storyteller is, also prevailed in private. George Clayton Johnson discovered this when he and his wife, Lola, visited the set where they were filming “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, in which Dick York plays a mild-mannered bank clerk who suddenly acquires the ability to read minds. Years later, Johnson recalled:
Now I will tell you my favorite Twilight Zone and Rod Serling story.
I was on the set that day because I was invited. I took Lola with me, and we watched the filming. I introduced myself to James Sheldon, he was the director, and we talked a while and then Rod Serling comes on the set. He’s leading a choir of onlookers like a tour guide for visiting dignitaries, and everyone on the set was electrified. No one dared to make a move while he was there.
Then he sees me and Lola standing there, and he introduces me to the people, “And this is George Clayton Johnson, the writer of this absolutely dandy film we are making right now.” And I am hearing my name and the praise. Then Serling introduces the director … but he introduced me first. I felt like a king.
Johnson wasn’t the only TZ “gremlin” to note how the work of the storyteller was honored and appreciated on The Twilight Zone. In another blog post, I noted how pleasantly surprised Charles Beaumont was to find his “Perchance to Dream” going before the cameras virtually untouched. The producers of other TV series might treat the writer like a mere commodity, but not Rod Serling.
The result? A series that set the standard for imaginative fiction. The secret: a well-told story. And, as we’ve seen, a healthy respect for the storytellers who write them.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!