There’s more than one way to introduce supernatural or otherwise fictional elements into a story. Frequently, The Twilight Zone parcels clues across the episode about what exactly separates the dimension the characters are in from the viewer’s reality. In the fifth episode of season one, “Walking Distance,” Rod Serling does just that.
The episode starts with Martin Sloan, an ad man from the big city, roaring into a small town’s gas station and laying on the horn to get the attendant’s attention. Sloan says he’s in no hurry after all of that, because he is human garbage—Don Draper without the swagger. The Twilight Zone gets away with having characters like Sloan—one- or two-dimensional instead of three, and imminently hateable—because viewers know that a punishment is coming in the next twenty minutes.
Sloan walks to the nearby town while his car is serviced and when he steps into the pharmacy, Serling gives us the first clue that things aren’t as they appear. Sloan recognizes the man behind the soda counter, who tells him, “I’ve got that kind of face.” It’s a great detail because there’s no reason for Sloan to recognize the man, but everyone falsely recognizes a stranger once in a while. Then Sloan waxes poetic about old Mr. Wilson, who used to sleep in the backroom before a heart attack killed him.
When Sloan walks out, the clerk who served him goes to the back room and tells Mr. Wilson, the man who died in Sloan’s story, that they need more chocolate syrup.
There are more obvious clues that Serling gives us as well. Sloan tells the clerk that, “It’s just as if I left yesterday.” Like in “Where is Everybody?,” (also directed by Robert Stevens) the character is saying exactly what’s happening. The other evidence is building a case that he’s right.
The next clue comes when Sloan starts questioning children about how they play marbles now on the street. It’s odd, and would surely get him arrested today. When he tells that little boy his name, the boy tells Sloan, “I know Martin Sloan and you’re not him.” Serling is hammering it home, stressing what’s happening so viewers will believe it.
Two minutes later, Sloan is telling a random woman about how he carved his name into the side of the bandstand. When he wistfully gazes at the bandstand he sees a boy carving a name into the bandstand and runs over. It turns out that the boy is carving, “Martin Sloan.” He’s found himself, twenty or thirty years younger.
If everything in the episode had been normal up to that point, it would be the kind of moment that bounced viewers out of the story. Most readers won’t go from 0 to 60 with magical elements. There needs to be some runway. The clues are so clear in “Walking Distance,” that when the older Sloan approaches his younger self, the audience already knows the older Sloan has slipped into the past. They’ve known since they saw Mr. Wilson sleeping in his chair in the back of the pharmacy, if not earlier.
If you’re telling a story with supernatural elements in a realistic world, your goal should be to parcel out information before the reveal so that the viewer knows enough about what’s coming that they aren’t thrown out of the story by the reveal. The hard part, and what makes The Twilight Zone so good, is having enough ramp while maintaining the surprise.