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 clichéd 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. 

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