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Rod Serling answers the question: “Does Espousing a Cause Lose Character Credibility?”

July 31, 2009

“Carry with you at all times, your sense of caring and your concern. But put it into the mouths of flesh and blood people. If not, write tracts.”

This easily could be one of the more arguable sections in the Writing for Television series of talks.  One must of course remember the historical context that this discussion came from: the early 70’s and the Viet Nam era.  Serling did his most recognized work closer to the era of the HUAC hearings.

I’ll be the first one to admit the pitfalls of speaking of “causes” in any work, and perhaps that’s not the job of a writer whose job it is to “entertain”.  But in our generation, much of what we call entertainment seeks to do more than simply occupy our time, and many writers seek to move beyond the constraints of sheer entertainment.

This is not to say that speaking to controversial ideas, or dare I say it “a cause” is something new.  Dalton Trumbo was not exactly dancing a soft shoe when he wrote his novel, followed by the screenplay and directing his opus, Johnny Got His Gun. Serling himself isn’t exactly shy to tackle ideas of fascism in Seven Days in May.

But when he speaks of putting the “words into the mouths of flesh and blood people”, one could argue that he’s suggesting that better your characters carry the weight of an idea, rather than the author mounting her own soap box in a work.  After all, Serling was smart enough a producer on The Twilight Zone to know where he could take an idea, or how far he could push subject matter.

Flash forward to our modern era and we have shows like Battlestar Galactica, Six Feet Under, films like Syriana, The Constant Gardener and Milk which excel in dealing with controversial ideas in an open and thoughtful way.

So what has changed? Audiences?  The skill of the modern storyteller, or story craft itself?  To this day, there will always be some who will cry foul at films “with a message”, no matter how well or even handed a writer might deal with the material.  But I think the opportunity to tell those stories, for those who with skill enough to weave a subtle and engaging story tapestry, are present closer to today’s mainstream than ever before.

I wonder what you think about Serling’s perspective, and how things have changed since then.  How does a writer successfully speak toward a certain idea without mounting his soap box? And what ultimately makes a film successful or unsuccessful?

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