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 I Make Time to Write as a Stay-at-Home Parent

I read plenty of articles on establishing a writing routine. Unfortunately, the majority should have a disclaimer: “Irrelevant to parents of young children.”

My last job left me feeling burned out, so when the time came to decide what to do about our first-born, I volunteered to stay home. I reasoned that I would finally have the time and the mental energy to write.

This actually worked for the first few months I stayed at home. I wrote a good chunk of the first draft of Monsters All the Way Down during that time, and I thought I would be able to write and edit one book every year before my children started school. Even with the many long nights and the stress of being a new parent, it was one of the most pleasant autumns of my entire life.

It didn’t last.

I later found out most people thought I was either lying about staying home to write–“He just doesn’t like going to work”–or believed I was crazy to think I’d have any extra time. As soon as my son stopped sleeping most of the day, the time I had to write–and clean, and breathe, and think–disappeared. I’ve met writers who could write with their children running and screaming in the same room with them. Unfortunately, I am not one of those parents.

ear plugs

Free parenting advice: ear plugs take the edge off and add years to your life. You’ll still be able to hear your little angels screaming bloody murder.

I finished the first draft ofΒ  Monsters and revised it over the course of a hundred inefficient late nights. Some nights, after my family went to bed, I would sit down at my desk and cry, because I knew I was too exhausted to write anything.

After giving up on burning the candle on both ends, I tried working during the evenings after my wife got home from work. That wasn’t fair to her, and even though she didn’t say anything, I could tell how frustrating it got for her after even one night of coming home from work and then being totally in charge of the kids all evening while I sat in my office. So I went back to writing at night.

Of course, taking care of the kids all day and sitting at my desk all night was unsustainable. It took me too long to realize I’m not a very good dad when I’m exhausted. I’m grumpy, stressed, and not fun to be around. This also wasn’t fair to anyone, especially to my kids.

My writing came to a standstill as I got my parenting back on track. But this presented a problem, too. Like many people that love to create, I feel lost and–let’s face it–depressed when I’m not making anything. I still needed a routine that let me care for my kids but also gave me creative time to look forward to.

My solution is Sunday is my Writing Day, and I can’t express how much it has helped me. On Sundays, I get a full work day’s worth of writing. It only works because my amazing wife is supportive, and I’d like to think it’s a good way to make the most out of a difficult situation.

If you’re a single parent trying to write, you are my superhero. I can only hope you have a support system of family and friends to help you by watching kids for if you want to try a weekly Writing Day.

Is writing one day a week ideal? Not for me, but it’s better than the other alternatives I’ve tried. If you’re a stay-at-home parent struggling to make time to write, you might want to try staking a claim on one day a week to be your Writing Day. Here are some pointers, most of which I’m still working on myself:

  • Can’t do a full day? Try scheduling two regular evenings a week
  • Remember that your writing priorities are not shared by others. Be understanding, but be selfish with your Writing Day. In return, give your time to your family freely the rest of the week.
  • Take care of business, but remember there will always be something you could be doing other than writing. Things will keep.
  • Sometimes things come up that are more important than your writing day. Be mature about it and remember there will be other days to write.
  • If you have a Writing Day to look forward to, there’s no reason not to handle as many chores as possible the other days of the week. (I really need to work on this one!)
  • When you are having a tough time, remember that you have a Writing Day coming up. This has totally changed my outlook on bad days.
  • Headphones or ear plugs help drown out the sound of noisy children during your Writing Day.
  • If something comes up that makes you miss your usual day, do everything you can to reschedule it to a different day that week.
  • Even if you aren’t an outliner by nature–I’m not–you can make use of smaller outlines to better utilize your writing time. If I have a complicated section or scene coming up, I outline in my spare moments throughout the week so I can make the most out of Sunday.
  • During the week, find writing-related activities you can do with your children around, like reading good books, working on a blog, or building up your Twitter followers.
  • Utilize a mobile supplemental file to keep track of those beautiful ideas you have outside your Writing Day.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before, so you can get an early start. (This is another big one I need to work on!)
  • Set realistic goals. My last project was somewhat complex, so my goal was 3,000-5,000 words a session. I didn’t always meet it, but I always tried!
  • A to-do list is important for those days you need to accomplish more than writing as much as possible.
  • Any good advice that applies to a daily writing routine applies: eliminate distractions, have a clean work area, be productive, don’t look back.
  • Be the best parent you can be. It might be hard to believe, but your kids are more important than any book.

Setting aside one day a week to write is difficult, and don’t develop any delusions about this being the perfect solution for busy parents. But it has already helped me work toward publishing one book, finish the first draft of another, and finish several short stories. Hopefully it will work until I go back to work or my kids start school.

Watching a book grow by only 3,000 to 5,000 words a week is difficult, but it beats your novel not growing at all. Don’t give up!

I usually tweet about my Sundays with the hashtag #SundayIsMyWritingDay.

What are your methods for finding time to write? Please share below.

One Trick That Helps Me Finish First Drafts

I’ve shared this with other writers before, and I’ve been told it was helpful. For some it might seem obvious, and I’m sure some variant is standard operating procedure for many. Still, this technique is a primary reason I’m able to finish my awful first drafts. I use it for both short stories and novels, and I’m sure you’re clever enough to find more applications.

Years ago, I was newly married and attending graduate school–perfect time to start a novel, right?

I obsessively outlined the entire book. I wrote and rewrote the first chapter a dozen times. When I finally made progress, I went back and rewrote that first chapter again and again.

I’m still married, and eventually I graduated. But I never finished the first draft of that novel.

We could argue it was the wrong time to start a book, or my detailed outlines killed my creativity. After all, I knew how it ended, so where was the fun in getting to the end? But this post isn’t “Outlining vs. Flying by the Seat of your Pants.”

Back at the time, I was obsessed with the story of Orpheus. For the unfamiliar, Orpheus descended into the underworld to rescue his lost love, Eurydice. He’s told she will follow him back to the surface as long as he doesn’t look back. Just before he reaches the surface, he doubts and turns around, only to see Eurydice disappear back into the abyss.

These themes even worked their way into my unfinished book–but I never made the crucial connection. Just like Orpheus, I was doomed because I kept looking back.

I told you to finish the first draft!

If only he had finished his first draft!

To avoid this terrible end, I stopped looking back.

That’s very poetic, Ryan, you’re thinking. It brings a tear to my eye. But it doesn’t tell me anything. Everyone knows you have to press on through your first draft, but how did you do it?

I make a supplemental file for every short story and novel. I use Google Drive, a free service. One Note is another free option, and you may already have it on your computer. Use whatever works for you. I use Drive because it’s simple and allows me to access the file from any computer or my phone. I name my files “(Title of story) – Supplemental.”

The supplemental file is for all the things I want to go back and change, my ideas for scenes I haven’t written yet, and anything else I need to remember but I’m not writing into the novel that instant. You can also delete a section from the story but stick it in the supplemental file if you want to hold onto it.

Brilliant idea while standing in line? Put it in the file. Finishing chapter 10 but realize the perfect way to reorder the first three chapters? Put it in the file. I type it in right away, before I have a chance to forget. Middle of the night, middle of a meal, doesn’t matter. I know better than to believe I’ll remember, and a grand idea once forgotten is an immeasurable loss.

How does the supplemental file change the game? It keeps me from meddling until the first draft is done. I finish the first pass and then work through the supplemental file, making those changes one at a time.

I’ve just started revisions on another novel, and today was a perfect examples of the supplemental file’s power at work.

I realized, fifty pages into the first draft, one male character should be female. In the old days, I would have gone back and changed what had come before to make the draft cohesive. But that way lies only madness. Instead I made a note in my file: “Change childhood friend to a girl.” I named her and kept on writing as if she had been in the book all along.

Today I returned to the completed draft and changed the character in those earlier sections with ease, without losing any of my sweet, sweet momentum. What could have cost valuable writing time instead made these early revisions a treat.

During revisions, I prioritize the changes I still want to make–I usually do the largest changes first. I highlight entries in the file once I’ve implemented them and use strikethroughs to show ideas I’ve discarded. This way I remember what’s taken care of and hold onto discards in case I change my mind a second time.

This process might go against the general advice to trim at least 10% off your first draft. If it helps, consider additions made with the supplemental file to be part of Draft 1.5. After making your supplemental changes, then you can start cutting and tightening everything up.

Using a supplemental file accomplishes at least three things:

  • You plow through the first draft without losing momentum.
  • You don’t forget those beautiful ideas.
  • You don’t waste time going back to cram in terrible ideas.

It’s also good practice to keep a separate character file and, if necessary, a world building file. And don’t forget to back up your supplemental files often; they’re nearly as important as your first draft, and you should back up your first draft after every writing session.

I hope this post has been helpful and encouraging. Do you have any advice for cranking out a first draft? If so, please share in the comments below.

Remember, don’t be like Orpheus. Don’t look back. Keep looking forward to your success.

How I Used Reddit’s r/writing to Find my Cover Designer

Monsters All the Way Down cover

Once I decided to go the self-publishing route for Monsters All the Way Down, I wanted to do it professionally or not at all. This meant hiring someone to do the cover.

Googling failed me. I sent out a Twitter SOS and connected with some excellent designers, but none were the right fit for Monsters–or for the novels in progress that will connect with it. I considered hiring a comic artist, but it became apparent designing the cover for a novel is different than illustrating for comics.

My buddy Josh Jordan hires photographer J.R. Blackwell and designer Daniel Solis to make some of his covers, but most cover designers in my price range put a heavy emphasis on stock images. There is nothing wrong with this approach, as evidenced by the majority of published books, but I wanted something a bit different.

I lurk Reddit’s r/writing, so I looked there. I stand before you now, the only person to have benefited from the infamous Reddit search engine.

This past NaNoWriMo, Rory Harnden made covers for author free of charge. Liking the look of them, I tracked down his website. I emailed the information he requested, and asked for a price quote on both an ebook cover and a wraparound print cover.

In my initial request, I attached some images I thought could help, including a devilish mask, a white suit, and an album cover with a style I liked.

Rory got back to me in the next day with a reasonable price. After payment and more information from my end, he worked up four impressive concepts. After narrowing it down to my favorite, I made a quick mockup to see how it looked as a thumbnail on Amazon. I got a confirming second opinion from my wife and asked Rory to run with it.

We emailed back and forth on the details. Rory’s in the Netherlands, so his 7 am is my midnight, but he always got back to me quickly. A couple of times I asked him to make a change only to regret it. He was consistently polite and didn’t mind changing it back to before my meddling. I asked him to include my favorite element from a rejected concept–dripping ooze–on the back cover.

Once the cover was finished, he sent me the images and other pertinent information–fonts used, copyright information, etc. I bothered him once more to make sure I could use elements from the cover in promotional material, and that was that.

Monsters All the Way Down wraparound cover

Along with print quality covers, I received the image in black and white, a version without text, and several versions of the formatted title as an image.

Elapsed time from request to files in hand: two weeks. Would have been even faster if I hadn’t gone back and forth on those minor details.

If you’re needing a cover–or any graphic design work, for that matter–I recommend Rory Harnden without reservation. He’s professional, fast, and accommodating of wishy-washy first-time publishers. You can contact him from his website at rrry.me.

My tips for self-publishers seeking a cover designer:

  • Establish your budget. You can be thrifty, but a $5 cover will probably look like a $5 cover.
  • Shop around. Google, Twitter, deviantART, and Reddit are places to cast a wide net.
  • Make sure you know the designer’s policy on revisions and how the material can be used.
  • Ask questions.
  • Make sure the cover looks great at the size of a postage stamp, as that will be how many first see it. Would it draw your attention if you scrolled past?
  • If you need a print cover, know your cover size and word count before seeking out a designer, even if it’s an estimate. CreateSpace and other print-on-demand services will provide a template your designer might need. 6 x 9 inches is a popular cover size, but I went with 5.25 x 8.
  • Provide suggestions and some starting points. You’ve lived with your book for a long time, but this will be the first the designer is hearing of it. You know the tone and motifs of your book better than anyone. Don’t expect the designer to read your book.
  • Ask for the changes you want. You’ll hopefully be associated with this image by billions of adoring fans, so it’s worth the time to get it right.
  • Realize it takes time to make those changes. You may get a quick turnaround, but it may be a day or more before you hear back.
  • If you’re planning on doing more than one book, keep that in mind. You may want a designer you can use for multiple projects, and some designers give a discount for work on a series.

So that’s the story of my first time getting a cover made. If you’ve had an experience with a cover designer, positive or negative, please share in the comments.

Monsters All the Way Down is scheduled for release August 1st.