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Lessons Learned From Charlie Brown

The comic strip, PEANUTS, surprised me recently.  Charlie Brown was projecting his thoughts 20-years into the future…far ahead into the early 1980’s.  Of course, since the current comic strip run is exclusively rooted in the 1960’s classics, this isn’t terribly surprising.

Still, the juxtaposition of where I was now as a reader looking back into the past, and where Charlie Brown was as a character looking way ahead into the future was disconcerting.  It momentarily pulled me out of the story.

There’s a storytelling lesson to be learned from this, though.  PEANUTS, despite its age, has managed to maintain its freshness.  This not only applies to the comic strips.  Who watches A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS or THE GREAT PUMPKIN story and thinks that they are out of date?  Probably very few folks, I’d wager.

It isn’t that PEANUTS is timeless.  However, the stories told…for the most part…do fit that category.  Even if we never fell in love with the little red-headed girl or had a beagle who imagined himself a World War 1 flying ace, we still draw emotional connections to those feelings.

Another example would be the two science-fiction “ultimate trips” of 2001 A SPACE ODYESSEY and its sequel, 2010.  Neither of these futures came to pass.  Yet, for me, they are both hugely enjoyable.  (2001 almost feels like a quaint, missed future opportunity.)  Indeed, the most reality-jarring moment in 2001 for me is when Pan Am is still seen flying and doing well.

We also didn’t succumb to 1984.  One could argue that Big Brother is alive and well and doing nicely.  The same could also be said for Winston Smith.  So, although the fictional reality didn’t come to pass, the power of the work still resonates.

This is good news for storytellers, especially corporate storytellers.  I often tell claim loss stories in seminars that are now nearing 25-years old.  They still hold interest, they still get their points across, and no one asks aloud, “Hey, when did this happen?”

Audiences can also relate to historical tales as long as there is an emotional connection.  If they can see themselves in the situations that are confronting the characters of our stories, they will follow the storyteller into those mist-shrouded times.

Unfortunately, there are times that the disconnect is too great.  It is of vital importance for the storyteller to be aware of this and either make ethical alterations or pursue a different story altogether.

For instance, consider the writings of Dale Carnegie.  One of his strong selling points was the emotional connection he was able to make with his audience.  He was a master at weaving the influential tale by establishing an immediate rapport with readers and listeners.  I have enjoyed everything of his that I have read.

The drawback was that he made extensive references to “headline people” of the day who have since faded into obscurity with many in our population.  So, while his fascination with Abraham Lincoln still draws recognition, his references to Lowell Thomas do not.  (Consequently, many of his works have been rewritten to provide more recognizable references.)

The storyteller should also never assume shared understanding of cultural events from other parts of the world, or news stories that drew great interest at their time, but are virtually unknown to the present.  The disconnect pulls the audience out of your story while they seek for a reference.  Not finding one, they may drop their attention.

This is not to say that the storyteller cannot use these.  A true story that is virtually unknown, but is being revealed to the audience, can be fascinating.  (Many movies gain a great deal of mileage out of the words, “Based on a true story.”)

By the way, if you doubt this, do some research into the murder trial of Dr. James Howard Snook of Columbus, Ohio.  All but forgotten today, it caused an incredible sensation in 1929.  Yet, a retelling never fails to enthrall.  I just need to be sure to include the necessary details to keep the audience with me.

Thanks for reading.