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Powerful messaging is possible in details

November 14, 2013

If I saw the following picture without context, I wouldn’t have noticed it. Instead, because I was on a very liberal message board at the time (I am personally politically eclectic), I saw it immediately.

In the Peanuts Thanksgiving special, Franklin, the only black member of the Peanuts gang, is sitting alone on his side of the table, while four people (okay, three people and Snoopy) sit on the other side together. Over the years, some people have considered the program racist because of this depiction. Given Charles Schultz’s reactions to people who objected to Franklin when he was introduced in 1968, that’s unlikely. (Several newspapers threatened not to run the script and one man said he didn’t mind Franklin as long he didn’t go to school with Peppermint Patti and Marcie. Schultz ignored the letter.)

More likely, this details is a statement on the state of racial relations at the time. If that’s true, it’s a tiny detail that makes a point if you see it, but doesn’t beat you over the head.

In a similar way, the film American Beauty is awash in details–the use of the color red and of roses. And of Lester Burham, the character being portrayed by Kevin Spacey, being imprisoned by the life he’s made for himself. (I especially like the partially hidden Watch Your Step sign.)

The point here isn’t whether Charles Schultz is correct in his assessment of racial relations in 1973 or whether Lester Burnham is an awful human being. That’s for you to decide.

The point is these symbols potentially make very potent points about the story, or even about society as a whole without beating you with them. They’re precisely the types of details we can use in our writing to create rich, multi-layered stories with mean that transcends what’s immediately obvious.


  1. November 14, 2013 7:06 am

    I appreciate you pointing this out. I find myself turning away from otherwise compelling stories when writers use heavy-handed tactics to deliver overt social or political messages. However, when details such as those you’ve mentioned are seamlessly woven into the telling, authors can get their readers thinking far more effectively.

    Compare these extreme examples in, say, a young adult, interstellar paranormal romance:

    The young lovers’ parents work for opposing corporations on different worlds, one determined to eradicate the last purple penguins from both planets and the other determined to make purple penguins their planets’ preferred pets.

    In the heavy-handed version, readers are subjected to rhetoric-laden diatribes aimed at the offspring (in chapter after chapter) in order to tell which side each parent is on and in order to tell the reader what to think of controversial purple penguin issues.

    In the version told by showing powerful details, Parent A passes a small, squalling child whose purple toy penguin has fallen to the ground, just beyond reach, and alters her gait to grind it beneath her four-heeled shoe. Crossing Parent A’s path seconds later, Parent B walks in the opposite direction, pauses to pick up and clean off the toy, then hands it back to the now beaming child.

    If you were a reader whose every reading dollar was dedicated to young adult, interstellar paranormal romance (but who has no opinions on the fate of the purple penguin) which version would you find intrusive? Which might make you think twice the next time you encounter a purple penguin?

  2. November 14, 2013 10:15 am

    I appreciate this post. Very poignant. Also really liked Teal’s comment! Thanks to both of you!

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