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. 

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