Author Sarah Zettel on Genre Writing

By Prologue Books Author Sarah Zettel


I Learned to Write in a Dimension of Sight, a Dimension of Mind

There are questions that writers get asked a lot. The most popular is “Where do you get your ideas?” But really close after that is “Where did you learn to write?”

Now, nobody means “where did you learn to put words in a line?” They mean “where did you learn to tell stories?”

This leads me to a kind of embarrassing confession for a novelist. I did not learn the best points of storytelling out of books. I learned them from an old TV show. The best of what I know about genre writing, especially the best I know about science fiction and fantasy comes from The Twilight Zone.

This show was unique, and I use that term with precision. There was no other show like it at the time, and there has been none like it since. There have been other anthology shows; but none of them has had the reach or the punch of The Twilight Zone.

And I’ll tell you why.

Rod Serling, the show’s creator and iconic narrator, had an eye for a story that remains unmatched.

Oh, I know there are some turkeys in the bunch. Some were overly sentimental. Some were just bad. And there are some, like, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” that I’m probably the only person in the world who enjoys, because I’m just like that. Also, if you watch long enough, you can start to see the patterns that run through them: the one thing no one believes is going to turn out to be true. Making bets is inevitably a bad idea, and making wishes is an even worse one. Robots and computers are always alive. Be nice to your dying relatives. And for Pete’s sake, if you see Billy Mumy, run.

But despite the lapses, for five years and 136 episodes, Serling was able to create one brilliant episode after another. He assembled excellent casts, drawing from a pool that included small screen up-and-comers like William Shatner, and this minor young fellow named Robert Redford, and actors Hollywood had worn down or discarded, from Mickey Rooney to Ida Lupino, to magnificent character actors like Jack Klugman and Burgess Meredith.

But great actors have to have something to work with, and it was the scripts Serling helped create that made that show unforgettable. Those stories, with their deep character studies, their dark humor, their searching morality, their faith in humanity, and their fear for humanity. Serling presented people thrown into circumstances where anything, literally, could happen. You could meet the devil. You could become the devil. A toss of a coin could give you the power to read minds. The world could end by man’s hand or God’s. A sad man could become Santa Claus, a doll could take revenge, all sorts of aliens could interfere with the Earth. The people of Earth could become the aliens. But every single story was built around a strong central character. A hardened woman alone on a farm. A salesman who wants to make one good score. An old woman who just wants to live. A man who just wants time to sit and read. A small boy who just wants his own way.

Each one of them was fully and recognizably human, with human flaws and motivations. Their weaknesses sometimes opened the door, and sometimes their strengths got them through. No matter how strange or terrible the circumstances surrounding these characters became, the stories flowed directly from the characters. If there was a common thread running through the stories, it was that in each there was a moment of choice that the story turned on. A human action, a human choice, could end a life, end the world, or save us all.

It’s that concentration on character that is at the heart of really good storytelling, no matter what medium the writer is working in. The strengths and weaknesses of the individual determine the course of events, no matter how strange or magnificent the world around them. That’s what I learned from that stripped down, sparse, black and white show that had already been in re-runs for years before I started watching it. For me as a writer, there was a sign-post up ahead, and it showed up on when I was a kid, Saturday afternoons with a dark suit and a cigarette and terminally creepy theme music. But I was always right there, eyes and imagination wide open, and I never truly went home again.

So, where, you ask, did I learn to write? Where we all do, and yes, it is submitted for your approval. In The Twilight Zone.


A Sorcerer's Treason by Sarah ZettelSarah Zettel is an American author of seventeen novels across the science-fiction, fantasy, and mystery genres. Two of her four-book fantasy series–Isavalta and Camelot–have been published in Prologue’s Fantasy collection. A Sorcerer’s Treason, the first book in her Isavalta series, is free from July 15, 2012 through July 21, 2012 for Kindle and Nook. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or her website, SarahZettel.com. Check back on Friday, July 20, 2012 for another post by Sarah! Back to top.

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