Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": Creating an Imperfect Ending

Monday, December 28, 2015

I hate saccharine endings. I also hate ones that seem unrealistic or tie up the loose ends too perfectly. Yes, miracles do happen, and it can be okay to use one if it is set up correctly. But life isn’t perfect, and no story should end by pretending it is. Even a good love story ends with the lovers accepting each other’s faults rather than making them go away.

A Christmas Carol shows me how to satisfy with an imperfect ending.

In one sense, the story does end with a miracle, because that is what the change in Scrooge is. And we are all happy that the shadows of the future could be changed and Tiny Tim did not die. But he was still lame. God does not choose to cure every illness or disability in this life, and having Him do so here would have been saccharine instead of satisfying.

The Christmas season doesn’t end on December 25th, and the close of Dickens’ story is my wish for you in 2016 and beyond:

[I]t was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": A Subtle Message

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Christmas Carol teaches me how to weave a subtle message into a story.

Wait, you say. A subtle message? The message in A Christmas Carol is anything but subtle.

That depends on which message you mean. The values of generosity and kindness and the possibility of redemption are all front and center, but that is only part of the point Dickens makes.

There was nothing politically incorrect about the Christ message in Dicken’s day, but that didn’t mean everyone wanted to read books about it. So he wrote a story that took place at Christmas and extolled Christian values but had a seemingly secular focus. On the surface, anyway. The Christ message was still there, but it was woven into the story in subtle ways. I have highlighted the most important words in these examples:

·         Near the beginning, Scrooge tells his nephew that Christmas has never done him any good. Here is part of the nephew’s response: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”
·         This passage comes during Scrooge’s discussion with Marley’s ghost: “At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?
·         After Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim return from church, Tiny Tim leaves the room momentarily. While he is gone, Mrs. Cratchit asks how he behaved in church. Bob says he was as good as gold and remarks on how Tiny Tim says the strangest things. “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Dickens couldn’t foresee the future and didn’t know how easily those passages could be deleted from movie adaptations of his story. But people who read the original version still find them there. 

When people are tired of hearing a message or simply don’t believe it, subtle is better. And A Christmas Carol shows me how to accomplish that. 

The picture at the top of this post shows Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim returning from church. It was drawn by Fred Barnard for an 1878 edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The illustration is in the public domain because of its age. 

Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": Show Me, Too

Monday, December 14, 2015

Charles Dicken’s wrote A Christmas Carol during the earlier part of his career and, like any serious writer, he got better after that. Although it isn’t his best work, it’s a great story because it seduces me each time I read it. This desire to read a book over and over is the very definition of a classic.

What keeps drawing me in? Partly, it’s the style the narrator uses to tell the story—as we discussed in the last post. But another big plus is Dicken’s ability to show me what happens rather than just telling me.

At first, it doesn’t carry that promise. How do we discover that Scrooge is a miser? Dickens tells us.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days, and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

It’s fun to read this passage, with its rhythm and picture language, but I’m not ready to take the narrator’s word for Scrooge’s character. Dickens must have understood that, because he went on to prove his reliability by showing me how Scrooge acts.

First, he shows Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, trying to keep warm by the embers of one dying coal because Bob is afraid of being fired if he asks for another. Dicken’s shows Scrooge’s attitude toward charity when two men come seeking subscriptions for the poor and Scrooge says he does enough by supporting prisons and workhouses with his taxes. Dickens also shows Scrooge’s attitude toward Christmas in other ways: in a conversation with his nephew and his reaction to a caroler. After all that, we are finally convinced that Scrooge is a miser, and we either pity him or are angry with him for being so cold-hearted.

Dickens produces a different type of emotion when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s house just after Tiny Tim has died. He shows us the effect on Bob, who is walking a little slower but tries to stay positive for his family, and on his family, who are trying to cheer up their father while dealing with their own sorrow. I know the ending, and I still get tears in my eyes because Dickens does such a good job of showing the family’s grief. He does it without using clich├ęd actions such as wailing. His evidences of grief are more subtle: a mother setting down her sewing because she can’t see the stiches, two young children laying their cheeks against their father’s own, and a father kissing his dead child’s face.

That’s lesson two from A Christmas Carol. Usually, the lesson is described as “show, don’t tell.” Here, Dickens does both, and it works because he put a lot of thought into his telling passage. But the tell would not have been convincing without the show. So the lesson here is not quite “show, don’t tell.” I’d phrase it this way. “Tell if you have a purpose in doing so. But if you want to make your point, show me, too.”


The picture at the top of this post shows Scrooge refusing to give a subscription to the two gentlemen who called at his office. The illustration was created by Sol Eytinge for 1867 and 1868 editions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The image is in the public domain because of its age. 

Writing Lessons from "A Christmas Carol": A Good Beginning*

Monday, December 7, 2015

One way I grow as a writer is by analyzing the books I read. This month my blog will cover lessons from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’ll start with the importance of a good beginning.*
To define my terms, a good beginning is one that grabs the reader’s attention and motivates him or her to continue reading. It doesn’t have to be—and usually isn’t—the event that creates the central conflict, but it does have to fit with the story. For me, finding the right beginning is the hardest part of writing a novel.
So what makes a good beginning? Let’s start with the first paragraph of A Christmas Carol.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Is this a good beginning? Or, to ask the question another way, does it make you want to read on?
For me it does. It tells me repeatedly that Marley is dead, but it doesn’t tell me why that matters. So the first paragraph leaves me with a question that won’t get answered unless I continue reading.
The next paragraph doesn’t do it, but it keeps my attention because the detour is interesting and has its own purpose. Here’s the second paragraph.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefor permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
This paragraph sets the tone (informal and conversational) and introduces me to the omniscient narrator. That last point is important because now I won’t be thrown out of the story when the narrator adds something that the characters themselves can’t know.
But I still don’t know why it matter that Marley is dead. Will the next paragraphs answer my question?
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
Now I’m even more curious. What remarkable thing is going to happen because Marley is dead? If I wasn’t hooked after the first paragraph, I am by the fourth. And that allows Dickens to take six more pages to fill in Scrooge’s character before answering the question that peaked my interest in the first place. Six pages where I keep reading even though I don’t yet know how those events relate to Marley’s death.
So how do you get a reader to keep reading? Grab the reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs and clue the reader in to the style and narrator of the book. If everything comes together, you may have a new fan.
That’s the first lesson from A Christmas Carol.
* The generic word “good” is often used as a lazy writer’s alternative to finding terminology that is more descriptive. For this post, however, I chose the word purposefully to conjure up the title of Lemony Snicket’s first book from A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you compare the opening paragraphs of The Bad Beginning with the opening paragraphs of A Christmas Carol, you will find some interesting similarities. But I’ll let you make that comparison on your own.
The picture at the top of this post shows Marley’s Ghost confronting Ebenezer Scrooge. It was drawn by John Leech for the first printing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published in December 1843. The illustration is in the public domain because of its age.