Why would a twenty-three-year-old white girl from the midwest clip a newspaper printing of the speech Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and tuck it away among her treasured mementos where it remains nineteen years later today?
Because she believed in the power of a lofty dream to drive change? Because she had faith in the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Because Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a compelling writer and speaker who knew how to captivate a diverse audience?
Yes, all of that and more. But, today I want to focus on three reasons I think the reverend’s writing moved me the way it did back when I first clipped that article, and why it still does today.
He created a universal problem and emotional connection. While the reverend’s speech was in no small part directed at those whose rights were being abused, he was brilliant to make it deeply personal for all Americans by invoking a patriotic problem. He speaks of when the ‘architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.’ If this problem, this refusal of rights can happen to one population of Americans, what keeps it from happening to anyone?
Reverend King Jr. makes us care because most Americans are cognizant of the greatness of the promise of our Constitutional rights. With an increasing global awareness, we’re even less likely to take them for granted. ‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.’
The writing lesson here: whether writing fiction or non-fiction, give your audience a personal reason to care by creating a problem they can relate to, an emotional connection either to the characters or the cause. Especially in fiction, even though your problem or plot may (and probably should) be extraordinary, your readers should be able to find the common humanity there.
He used powerful language, metaphors and active verbs to show, not tell. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech did not simply ‘tell it like it is’, he showed it through the use of active verbs and metaphors. While metaphors can be frowned upon in genre fiction today, few could argue they created a unforgettable visual of the plight of 1963: ‘seared in the flames of injustice’, ‘crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.’, ‘sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent’, ‘whirlwind of revolt’, ‘battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality’…
And, he also showed it in the vision of his dream: ‘on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…’, ‘Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed to an oasis of freedom and justice…’, ‘every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight…’. These are convincing visuals.
The writer’s lesson here: more than simply showing vs telling, try to break from the same worn and weathered words to paint vivid pictures. Scrap those clichés and push yourself to make your language—descriptions and actions—tell their own stories. This doesn’t mean your writing should be thick with purple prose, just that each word should be thoughtful and deliberate. For fiction writers, this also applies to dialog: if your reader can easily predict what your character will say next, it may not even be worth saying.
He leveraged the “Power of Three” and then some. A trick of great speakers—presidents and members of the clergy know this—is the rule of three. What most people remember from a speech is no accident. The key thoughts and takeaways are memorable because they are repeated or weaved throughout, at least three times.
The Rev. King Jr.’s words ‘I have a dream’ were repeated no less than six times throughout his speech. Same with ‘let freedom ring’. But, in addition to those memorable lines, he opened with repeated concepts around ‘One hundred years later’ to describe the state of despair long after Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Then with ‘Now is the time’ to spurn urgency of action, and also with ‘We can never be satisfied as long as…’.
This rule of three can work in your writing too: repeated themes and ideas stick. In fiction this may need to be more shrewdly thought out so you’re not overusing a word or repeating a crutch-phrase, but if there is a key point you want to make sure the reader doesn’t miss, this is a technique anyone can apply.
In respect for the holiday, might I suggest you take a moment to read the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and reflect not only on his great vision but how charismatically he used the tools of language to share that vision with the world?