Profiles in Communication: Rod Serling

TruScribe’s passion is for communication.  We are, as our saying goes, drawn to change. While we might have different reasons for getting into whiteboard video, we celebrate many of the same great visual storytellers that came before us. 

In this blog series, we look at beloved communicators in television, film, and theater. We examine the strategies and principles that made their messages so engaging and retainable. For our first profile, we look at the man behind The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and other unforgettable television: Rod Serling.

Early Life

Born in 1924 in New York, Serling showed an early interest in theater. In school, he became involved in debate and the newspaper. After high school, Serling joined the military, hoping to fight Hitler’s war machine. To his disappointment, he found himself in the Pacific theater, where he received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. His experiences there would inform his writing for the rest of his life.

After the war, Serling worked in radio. In 1950, he began to submit scripts to television networks instead of radio producers. He experienced growing success in television, seeing several of his scripts produced, until 1959, when The Twilight Zone premiered.

Enter The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone was Serling’s baby, and a truly unique program. It mixed high-concept weirdness with incisive social commentary, frequently combining two or more genres in a single episode. Each episode stood alone and featured a unique cast and story. Each featured Serling himself to introduce and close the narrative. Serling’s topics covered race, gender, inequality, institutional oppression, religion, and more.

So what was it that made Serling’s material so resonant?

Rod Serling died in 1975, but in 2020, Walt Disney World still maintains a highly popular ride based on The Twilight Zone. What keeps people coming back to the show, and Serling’s work in general?

To begin, Serling understood the value of simplicity. He knew that his topics were complex and often emotionally difficult. He understood that few would be interested in watching a direct address of these issues during prime-time television.  

Serling’s workaround? Provide a simple narrative that overlays the difficult specifics of the issue. Let the audience discover the real-world parallels on their own as they watch. And then, provide a final verdict at the end.

The closing let Serling give his call to action, of sorts—it was his time to comment on his message directly. By having this direct address at the end, Serling made sure that he’d already given the audience something valuable. A sort of televised version of content marketing. His comments didn’t seem overbearing because they were different from the story; they were an interesting final perspective to add to the narrative they’d just seen.

Use of Effective Visual Storytelling

Serling also utilized the principle of framing to great success in these moments of direct address. With some variation, most of the episodes that he introduced and closed would feature him standing center frame in a medium shot. Whiteboard video uses framing to create intimacy between the viewer and the moving human hand. Serling used it to a similar effect: his framing makes him a friend of the audience. 

Bracketing each episode with the writer personally speaking in close framing meant that viewers felt like Serling was telling them a story, individually. There was no invisible writer’s room, or simple logo leading into The Twilight Zone—it was Serling himself, guiding you into his narrative, and then checking in with you at the end with final thoughts.

Those final thoughts usually came after another design principle we still foreground in content creation today: surprise.  The only thing predictable in The Twilight Zone was its unpredictability, as Serling loved to turn the tables on his viewers in the last minutes of his episodes.  

From studying the science that went into TruScribe’s guiding principles of Scribology, we know that surprise causes a release of dopamine.  That dopamine, aside from being pleasurable, causes the brain to become and remain curious.  For The Twilight Zone, it meant a cascade of engagement, both within episodes and between them—viewers loved to try to figure out Serling’s twist before it happened, and they couldn’t wait until the next episode for a brand new host of surprises.

Development of a Distinctive Voice

Then, there’s Serling’s mastery of the principle of voice. If you’re familiar with The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, or any of Serling’s appearances, you’ll recognize his distinctive tone: a tight, mid-range staccato that made him both unique and classically authoritative. Voice, as a principle, means finding the right narrator for your message; Serling’s slightly weird, thoroughly engrossing delivery was exactly that.

In his own voice, then, consider the following quote: “Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”  

Serling believed his viewers were capable, motivated seekers of entertainment.

He trusted Americans to understand his simple dramas as statements on broader, real-world issues.

He trusted them to keep watching without the reassurance of continuing plotlines and characters.

He trusted them to listen to him at each episode’s end, and give his perspective a fair shake.

And he trusted them to heed his call to action.

That call, by the way, if there was just one that applied to the entirety of The Twilight Zone, might best be summed up in Serling’s statement that “I was deeply interested in conveying what is a deeply felt conviction of my own.  This is simply to suggest that human beings must involve themselves in the anguish of other human beings. This, I submit to you, is not a political thesis at all. It is simply an expression of what I would hope might be ultimately a simple humanity for humanity’s sake.”

Serling was a messenger, and that message was that inequality and cruelty should be exposed and rectified. He used his natural storytelling ability to weave this message into the fantastical Twilight Zone and virtually all of his work.

At TruScribe, we follow many of the design principles that Serling did to create our whiteboard content. Many of those principles—message, story, framing, surprise, voice—have direct analogs in our principles of Scribology.

Share an Important Message

Yet Serling wasn’t a master purely through technical ability.  Rod Serling and his Twilight Zone continue to resonate with modern audiences because of his passion.  That message, “a simple humanity for humanity’s sake,” remains just as relevant today as it did when he spoke about it.

Serling was a creator who cared, deeply. He was also a creator who knew exactly which design and writing tools to use to bring those cares to an audience he trusted. He believed in the people he was writing for, and he believed he could make a difference. 

Let’s close with one final statement from the man himself.

Submitted for your approval: “It has been forever thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms—all of them—may remain intact.  And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.”