What I Learned About Storytelling From the Original Twilight Zone

There are television shows that changed the way my brain worked. The Prisoner. Twin Peaks. The Adventures of Pete & Pete.

One that wiggled into my brain early was The Twilight Zone, the original series that aired from 1959 to 1964. I would have seen it on tape and in syndication much later. In my teen years, they started running marathons on the Sci-Fi Channel. I would live in the Zone for days at a time, my life narrated by Rod Sterling.

It’s an anthology series, and each episode is a standalone story with different creators. Episodes are usually creepy, but many are heartwarming or nostalgic. The omniscient narrator, Rod Sterling, sets the stage with his trademark dry style, and he wraps it up at the end with a moral or one last attempt to give you the heebie-jeebies. Most trips through the Twilight Zone have a twist ending that sticks with you.

Sure, some episodes are duds, but The Twilight Zone has some of the best directing, acting, and writing in the history of TV. I recently watched through the entire series, and here’s what it taught me about storytelling.

It’s all about the lighting

The Twilight Zone has a distinctive look. Directors often utilize a technique called chiaroscuro lighting, which uses shadows to create shapes and tell the eye where to focus. The high contrast between light and dark looks amazing in black and white. But more importantly, it sets the tone.

Bonus dutch angle! The Howling Man, 1960

Bonus dutch angle! “The Howling Man,” 1960

Lighting wasn’t the only tool in their tool box. They throw in tilted dutch angles, claustrophobic close-ups, and blaring musical cues. And all of it is used to set the tone of the scene. You might be in the dark about what’s really going on in the story, but there’s never any doubt about how you’re meant to feel.

I’m a writer, so I have my own set of tricks to move the spotlight and control the tone of a scene. Metaphor, word choice, sentence and paragraph length–there are countless ways to encourage the reader to experience the intended emotions.

Whatever your storytelling medium, don’t skimp on the lighting.

Don’t waste the budget on rubber monsters

I was flipping through channels once with my dad, and we settled on something with a flying saucer and a big rubber alien. My dad wondered if it was The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. I’d never seen that one before, but I said it had to be The Outer Limits. When it turned out I was right, my dad, understandably impressed at my useless talent, asked how I knew. I said, “The Twilight Zone doesn’t have rubber monsters.”

Rod Sterling had plenty of fights with the network about budget. They hired talented actors, built lavish sets, and bought great scripts. But they didn’t waste money on monsters. Rubber aliens showed up on occasion, but almost always for comedic effect. Because rubber monsters look silly.

twilight zone mr dingle the strong

Fortunately, we don’t see too much of this. “Mr. Dingle, The Strong,” 1961.

H.P. Lovecraft, the most ripped-off horror writer of the 20th century, said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His stuff was so scary because he didn’t over-describe his beasties. He told the reader just enough so the reader could scare themselves.

One of the best examples of rubber monsters done right is Ridley Scott’s Alien. That alien is terrifying because they keep it in the shadows. There’s a deleted scene where alien is brightly lit and onscreen for way too long. Suddenly it isn’t a nightmarish killing machine. It’s a guy in a rubber suit crabwalking around.

So let the audience fill in the blanks. This doesn’t just apply to creepy crawlies or murders, either. I think the reader can think of a steamier <ahem> romantic interlude than I can write. So I set the stage and let their imagination run wild. A peek is better than an anatomy lesson. I wouldn’t do this if I were writing bodice rippers, of course, unless I wanted to give out refunds.

Wrap it all up in 22 minutes

There are five seasons of The Twilight Zone. Seasons 1,2,3, and 5 have half-hour episodes, so they’re 22 minutes without commercials. Season 4 had a one-hour time slot, so episodes were over twice as long at about 50 minutes.

One of the reasons the show is still popular is the usual short length. Rod Sterling and the other writers were able to develop an entire world of original characters between commercial breaks. This forced them to trim the fat and make every second count.

Season 4 was different. The doubled length meant padding and needless repetition. Worst of all, it gave the audience time to catch up. I can’t imagine someone getting to the end of these episodes without knowing the twist. “Oh, he was dead all along? I called that ten minutes in!”

Twilight Zone Printer's Devil

It could have been a classic episode, but no one wants to sit through it. “Printer’s Devil,” 1963.

It’s tempting to make a story longer than it needs to be. I’m the worst about this, and I’m lucky to have a critique group to reign me in.

Cut out scenes that don’t set the tone, move the plot along, or develop characters. Combine characters when possible. Delete superfluous words. It’s hard, but sometimes you should just let a novella be a novella.

Hopefully you can benefit from my binge watching and overthinking about a fifty-year-old TV show. The whole series is available on Hulu, and everything except season 4 is on Netflix. Just stay on your guard, because not everyone makes it out of The Twilight Zone.

Buh buh buh buuuuuh!

“How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?”

I got my proof copies of Monsters All the Way Down. Because of the finality of this event, it got me thinking about one of the most common questions I get asked: “How long does it take to write a novel?” I thought I might share my own experience about how long it took from a blank page to a holy-cannoli-this-is-really-happening book.

Monsters All the Way Down proof copy

It even smells like a real book.

This is me baring my soul a bit. I know some writers can crank out a first draft in a matter of weeks, but that was not the case with me. I’ll try to keep my excuses to a minimum.

I started this book four years ago. I don’t know the exact date, but I had 11,000 words by June 24, 2010. This was a month after the birth of my son and a couple of months before I left my job for the stay-at-home dad gig. Our baby boy spent most of his time sleeping, and I could write 1,000-2,000 words on a good day. I thought I’d have the novel finished by Christmas.

Then a month passed and I only wrote 3,000 words. The next month, the word count increased by a mere 2,000. I now realized the wild optimism of my predictions. Fueled by Mountain Dew Live Wire, I wrote what I could between my son’s feedings and dirty diapers. I finished the first major section of the first draft on October 25.

As my newborn baby transformed into a bigger baby, I was writing less and less. After my wife fell asleep, I would write if I could. But as often as not, my son would wake up, so I was lying on the couch with him sleeping on my chest. We watched a lot of Cheers together during those night shifts.

I was writing in binges–this was long before I found a routine that worked for me. I finally hit the 60,000-word milestone on August 24, 2011, more than a year after I’d started. Momentum carried me to the end of my first draft on September 29. The sense of relief was overwhelming.

I starting revising and working through my supplemental file. After pulling an all-nighter, I sent out copies of my second draft to my beta reader volunteers in February, 2012. Looking back, it’s absurd I would take that step so early in the revision process. In my naiveté, I thought I was only a draft or two from a finished book. With input from my beta readers, I finished another draft by the time my daughter was born that May.

After months of wrangling a two-year-old and a newborn (and working non-stop every night on Monsters), I decided to use the summer to start another book and work on other projects. The plan was to start sending Monsters out to agents that fall, but caring for two small children is actually quite different than caring for one. I didn’t send out my first round of agent queries until February, 2013. The final product weighed in at about 86,000 words.

Without going into the details, I received exciting emails followed by disappointment. It was in March, 2014–after a four-month wait to hear that my most prospective publisher decided to pass–that I decided to self-publish my novel.

Finding a great cover artist ended up being easy, but the copy editing took longer than I expected (but the end result was worth every penny). I jumped through all the hoops, and I put a few of my short stories up for sale on Amazon and elsewhere to learn about the process. I’ll eventually blog about what I’ve learned about book layout and creating ebooks, and I’ll share some of the problems I had so that others might avoid them.

So there you have it. I expected it to take six months, but it took me three years to finish plus another year to release. There were many weeks and even a few months when I didn’t have the time or energy to work on the book at all, but finishing is worth it. If you take one thing away from this post, I want it to be: whatever your dream is, don’t give up. Even if it takes you years instead of months, don’t give up. Even if you realize the only way your work will reach your audience is if you put it out there yourself, don’t give up.

My father-in-law and I were just talking about the distance between the Want-To folks and the I-Did-It folks. I have to tell you, it feels good to sit back and say, “I did it. Guess it’s time to finish the next one.”

Ellipses . . . The Silent Killer

We all have our pet peeves. I know a woman that can’t stand the sound of someone rubbing a balloon. My dad has this thing about poor technique in the application of Elmer’s Glue. I’ve heard some great rants about inconsistent numbering in movie sequels.

I hate ellipses in dialogue.

My hatred for this punctuation borders on the irrational. If the third person narrator starts in with the ellipses, so help me, I will pull the eject lever.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to throw out the ellipsis altogether. It serves an important purpose in quoting sources, and the ellipses has a different effect when used in the word balloons of a comic book. My rant is directed only at the use of ellipses in a narrative.

Yes, there are even times an ellipsis is the perfect choice for character dialogue. But if you’re cramming the things into formal writing outside of a source quote, please, get help before it’s too late.

Here are three of my reasons you should leave out those hideous dot dot dots.

1. Ellipses make dialogue drag

Compare these two versions of a snippet of contrived speech:

“Abigail,” Ben said, “I love you. I’ve always loved you. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My heart—my heart has burned for you since the moment we met.”

“Abigail . . . ,” Ben said, “I love you . . . . I’ve always loved you. I . . . can’t sleep. I can’t . . . eat. My heart . . . my heart has burned for you . . . since the moment we met . . . .”

This is an exaggeration, but it demonstrates how ellipses suck the momentum out of dialogue. It also, to my surprise, made it sound like I cast Christopher Walken for the part of Ben.

If I don’t hear it in my mind as Christopher Walken or William Shatner, my mind translates it as drawing out the letters. “‘Abigailllllll,’ Ben said. ‘I love youuuuuuu.'”

Ellipses rob dialogue of momentum and urgency. They kill flow faster than mom’s spaghetti.

2. The Ellipsis is the wrong tool for the job.

Don’t get me wrong—I love dialogue that feels real. For better or worse, my favorite dialogue comes from folks like Joss Whedon and Brian Michael Bendis. I want my repartee witty, and I love false starts, stutters, and interruptions. In a perfect world, my dialogue would sound like the conversation you had with a friend that was so brilliant and funny, you curse yourself for not recording it.

But it’s incorrect to use ellipses for false starts, stutters, and being cut off. The proper punctuation in these instances is an em dash. Compare:

“Wait!” Abigail sceamed. “Ben, don’t . . .”

“Wait!” Abigail screamed. “Ben, don’t—”

In the second example, it looks like something interrupted Abigail. In the first, it sounds like Abigail had an attack of narcolepsy.

Ellipses don’t make conversations sound organic; they make your characters sound sleepy or bored. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to talk to someone who constantly trails off?

Use em dashes sparingly, or they will lose their effect, like exclamation points in old comic books. Unless you’re the Riddler, most sentences should end in a period.

If your character is inebriated, drugged, cripplingly shy, totally indecisive, or falling asleep, maybe an ellipsis is the right choice. Otherwise, think twice.

3. Ellipses are easy to screw up

I rarely see ellipses used correctly, and I have to look up the rules every time I use them. Which of the following is correct?

“I just don’t know . . . .”

“I just don’t know…”

I just don’t know? . . .”

Here’s a quick rundown on proper ellipsis usage. and Grammar Girl has a lengthy post on the same subject. But you’ll see disagreements everywhere about best practices. Just be consistent, and let the designer of your book deal with whatever your editor doesn’t cut for being boring or incorrect.

But if you’re doing your own book design like I am, you’ll have to decide what to do about ellipses. Despite my disdain, Monsters All the Way Down has three of them. Do I put a space in front of the ellipsis? Do I type a short space between the periods? If I use the glyph will the design police come for me in the night?

It is so much easier to just leave them out.

Of course, you can take all this advice or leave it. But your writing is important, so please be deliberate in your choices.



The late, great Charles M. Schulz is the only creator I give a full pass on ellipses.

A nice write-up on the proper use of ellipses and em dashes in dialogue.