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Rod Serling on Writing

Here are some amazing answers to student questions with Rod Serling at Ithaca College in 1972.

1. Where Do Ideas Come From?

"Ideas come from the Earth. They come from every human experience that you've either witnessed or have heard about, translated into your brain in your own sense of dialogue, in your own language form. Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized. Ideas are probably in the air, like little tiny items of ozone."

2. Please the Audience

"Because I am writing in an art form, the whole function of the art form is to be translated to other people. There's an emotional experience to be shared. Consequently, it isn't just me in my tower. It's how people react to what I write."

"I'm convinced that most of the writers who walk around laying claim to the honored sobriquet of writer are thinking in a sizable portion of their mind: Will they love it Des Moines? With they understand it in New Orleans? And consequently, deliberately prostitute and write downwards to what they believe is the lowest common denominator.  And when you start to preoccupy yourself, you're in trouble."

3. Don't Be Afraid to Touch on Contemporary Causes in Your Work

"Of course, you're going to overconcern yourself with issues. It's right that you should do so. And it's expected. This year. Next year. But not three years from now. Leave that soapbox behind. Carry with you at all times your sense of caring and your concern but put it into the mouths of flesh and blood people."

4. There Are Many Ways to Tell the Same Story

"Even the best of us… aren't totally aware of all the classic literature and you'll come up with a plotline which you think is altogether unique, and you're wrong."

5. You'll Always Find Yourself in Your Writing

"Forever. Constantly. And sometimes to my undying discredit. I think it's totally unintentional. I think it's a purely subjective exercise. I don't think I'm aware of it."

"But very often one of the major problems with strong writers who deal in dialog above plot, which happens to be, I think, more my forte than plot, dialog. If you look at some of the pages of the stuff I written, even some of the good things. Shut your eyes, you won't know who's talking. Because they all talk alike. And who do they talk like? Me. Now that's wrong."

6. Just Go Write

When asked about writing from outlines, Serling answered, "I take off and write out of a sense of desperate compulsion."

Serling then remarks how many writers, finer than him, are very analytical in their writing work extensively from notes and outlines. It's just not the way he writes.

7. Writing Is Therapy

"I think self-knowledge is one of the beautiful and marvelous creative aides that we have. Know thyself."

In a piece "of dialog… would I say it? And if I heard it would I believe it?"

8. Writers Are Born, Never Made, However…

"All writers are born. They're never made… on the other hand, we can sharpen the width of the writer. We can point out style to him. We can use the criteria that is age-old. Three thousand years of theater. That he can utilize to make a judgment on the value of his own work. We can show him what can move people."

"Observation is key."

To be a writer, "You must be the most self-disciplined beast walking the earth."

9. Put Yourself to the Test

"I too often hear from students, for example, or from anyone. I get this in the mail via correspondence" … 'I'm not a writer, but I've got this idea. And if you could just write it.' Well, that's not the key question. The key question is, 'Can you sit down and write it?"

"Then, of course, they are hung up by style and technique." … "It's story that counts. It heart, it's feeling, it's reality, it's legitimacy, it's authenticity, it's honesty, Its' the capacity for the printed word or the spoken word to move you. These are the key things."

10. Time Travel Is Effective

"Very often I find that, within the framework of the science fiction or fantasy genres, the use of traveling back in time is a very effective way of producing contrasts, of producing a kind of free-wheeling storytelling device."

He goes on to point out his personal wish in life would be to return to his youth. Which relates to much of his work.

"Part of creativity is being able to have the capacity to convey that kind of hunger. that kind of … bittersweet feeling to those who have never had it."

11. Build Your Story Around a Strong Ending

"That's the most singularly difficult part of the act of creation. Particularly in story form. I can tell you a thousand plots, brilliant premises, that'd really knock you out. And as a producer of a show I've had writers come to me and say, 'Gee, I've got a notion.' And they then proceed to tell you a brilliant notion. To the point of the climax. And that's where everything dissolves."

When asked how you overcome this, his suggestion was to develop a great ending first and build the "house" around a strong climax.

12. Satisfy Yourself

 "Don't preoccupy yourself, don't fret, don't tear hair, don't pull off your shirt in tatters because you've missed  comma, because you have a run-on sentence, because you've split an infinitive. To hell with all that. What is … the essence, what is key, what is major here is what have you put done as an idea, as a set of characters, as a conflict. This is what's important."

"But way down deep, who do you have to satisfy? Yourself."

Serling was asked about what writers should do once they've written something. His suggest a writer needs to find someone they trust, who can look at the work objectively and offer an authentic viewpoint. But, in the end however, you need to satisfy yourself first.

13. Creativity Is Nothing Without the Act of Writing Them Down

"The instinct of creativity must be followed by the act. The physical act of putting it down for a sense of permanence."

14. Master the Essence of Character Motivation

"The principle obligation you have as a writer is to go to a climax which interest and excites. And if it doesn't satisfy, at least makes an audience sit up and take notice of it. It must also be valid. It must take the various character traits of the individuals involved in your story and make them do something or react to something as their nature dictates."

Your characters and their actions within your story must be valid. They need to be consistent with the character you've created. If they do or say something, you need to provide a believable reason why they've done or said that something. The writer must believe it. "You must absolutely believe, that there is a moment when a man will turn his back on a fundamental belief and do something foreign to his nature." Especially if they suddenly are required to do something contrary to their nature, "where a man is put into the position of saving a man he couldn't care less about."





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