I am in love with my very special guest and have been for over 45 years. Charles Huff is not only my wonderful husband, he’s a writer as well. His blog, Boosterclub, focuses on insights from the Scripture and his own life lessons. He has a book shelf dedicated to biographies of famous and infamous people. Today, I’ve asked him to share some writing insights from the life of Winston Churchill.
Have you heard of sticky sentences? That’s cardiac arrest for our masterpieces, right? Those are the sentences that drag your readers to a stop. I am betting you’ve heard the instruction to be ruthless in self-editing as you strive to eliminate many reader distractions. So, why am I calling us to get sticky? Because I recently learned about sticky statements (not to be confused with those pesky sticky sentences). Sticky statements are those words you want to stick to your audience long after they have read your article or book or listened to your speech. They should move, motivate or be memorable—whether in non-fiction or fiction.
I think sometimes they happen by accident. I remember some classic lines from movies we’ve been told were delivered by an actor off-script. Many months ago, my critique partners pulled out a line I had written rather off the cuff. They held it up as the most powerful line in the story. So, why work so hard at it? Well, because of a surprise history lesson I received.
My wife gave me a copy of the book Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten after we had seen the movie. Intentional or not, McCarten gave us writers this crafting lesson about sticky statements from Winston Churchill. (The movie doesn’t express it, so read the book!
In the beginning we are introduced to a young Churchill. He’s a bit introverted and insecure. His insecurity grew as his leadership opportunities ended in disaster for England. He appeared to be the worst choice to hold any leadership position in government. When his name rose to the top consideration for Prime Minister, members of Parliament cringed at the thought. The king opposed him. But, they could not find anyone else. They seriously considered paying Hitler off through surrendering territories to him. They wanted to avoid war on their soil.
Words hold tremendous power
How did such a man end up being a world hero? One of Churchill’s qualities and practices stands out as a primary reason. He ruthlessly self-edited, striving for sticky statements. McCarten explains that at age 22 Churchill immersed himself in the classics, reading Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. At age 23, he wrote an essay he called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.” He was convinced words held tremendous power when handled carefully. His own ruthless editing gave rise to the reputation that he spent one hour of preparation for each minute of a speech.
He seeded his speeches with tension, let anticipation rise, gave small payoffs only to create new tension. He kept his audiences engrossed through each rise and fall until he knew they were ready to jump to their feet. His conclusions were sharpened and driven home with his audiences through his word choice. They must be words that carried emotion. They had to be in the right order. He practiced in his room, pacing, pausing, gesticulating. Churchill often dropped them into conversations with others to gage the reactions and then change his speech accordingly.
History declares how well it paid off. Great Britain prepared to buckle before the military might of Hitler’s Germany until May 13, 1940. Churchill stood before the House of Commons (and in truth before the nation) and spoke the words that changed the heart of each of his countrymen. “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
He ended with defining his aim: “I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
He used his skills to convince the King of France not to surrender. He spoke with field commanders facing impossible odds to continue to the last man so the evacuation of Dunkirk would succeed. His carefully chosen words breathed courage and determination into men facing certain death. But for one man laboring over ruthless editing and sticky statements, the world would be a different place today.
We may never write anything that would have a world-changing impact. But we have the power to impact someone’s world. Sometimes you need to get sticky.
About Mr. Wonderful
See more of Charles Huff’s writings at www.chashuff.wordpress.com where he offers encouragement toward the abundant life Jesus promised. He is part of two anthologies: James Stuart Bell’s Gifts from Heaven: True Stories of Miraculous Answers to Prayer and Susan King’s Short and Sweet, Too. He has devotionals published at www.christiandevotions.us and The Upper Room. He and his wife are charter members of Word Weavers International of Aurora, Illinois.
What words from a book, movie or speech have inspired you? What is your process to create powerful words?