Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an absolute classic, particularly around this time of year. And even if you don’t want to write exactly like Dickens, there’s something—a technique, an idea, a theme, etc.—that every writer can pull from Dickens’ writing.
The following is an excerpt from William Cane’s Fiction Writing Master Class, which walks you through Dickens’ method, and what you can learn from his writing. His book covers 21 classic authors and the types of techniques and tips you can pick up from reading—and studying—their writing. From William Faulkner to Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King to Herman Melville, this book mines the writing secrets of exceptional authors and shows you how to use them to develop a writing style that stands out in the crowd.
“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait,” was Dickens’s motto and his method. The techniques used in the execution of this method bear careful scrutiny for they were integral to the work of the master storyteller. Unfortunately, the use of humor escapes many writers today, especially those who seek to write serious fiction. Eschewing low humor, they mistakenly neglect the high. Dickens was a master of high humor—satire, puns, wordplay, and a curious method of characterizing that poked fun at his own creations even as he fleshed them out with life and a persona all their own.
Make Them Laugh
The humor in Dickens begins with the little touches in character portraits, such as in Dombey and Son where Mr. Perch is described “shutting the door, as precisely and carefully as if he were not coming back for a week.”1 The portrait of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is a classic of humorous description: “I observed that he had not such a thing as a smile about him, and that he could only widen his mouth and make two hard creases down his cheeks, one on each side, to stand for one.”2
The satire Dickens lavishes on the upper class in Bleak House is often laugh-out-loud funny. For example, his description in chapter twelve of Sir Leicester: “Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject. After reading his letters, he leans back in his corner of the carriage, and generally reviews his importance to society.”
You can use the same techniques employed to such good effect by Dickens to add outright humor to your work. The way to take advantage of this device—introducing humor into your story—is to develop your sense of the incongruous. Try to exaggerate your characters a bit and use a satirical tone. If all else fails, read Dickens and underline passages that strike you as particularly funny. Then use a similar tone or approach when describing one of your own characters, especially people you wish to poke fun at. This type of humor will not, it is important to underscore, detract from the high tone or seriousness of your subject. Instead, it will add a much appreciated human element to otherwise serious writing.
Make Them Cry
The second element of Dickens’ famous dictum revolves around his use of pathos, or strong emotion. As Aristotle pointed out in his Poetics, emotional appeals are one of the chief devices of the orator and, by extension, of the novelist. Novels weren’t invented back in Aristotle’s time, but drama was, and he pointed to examples from the ancient Greek dramatists where the evocation of pity and fear in the audience was planned in advance by the dramatist. In a similar way a novelist can learn from Dickens how to make readers feel strong emotions.
When Esther learns that her mother is Lady Dedlock, she is surprised. But Dickens knows that surprise is not enough, and he milks the scene for all it’s worth. He knows that a mother and child relationship will be moving, especially one in which a child discovers its mother after a long absence during which the girl was in ignorance. But he has the skill to ratchet up the emotion by having Lady Dedlock tell Esther that they must never speak again and that she (Lady Dedlock) cannot give any help to Esther. Here is a scene calculated to wrench the tears from even a hardened heart.
Our jaded age may find it harder to cry, but Dickens was a master of situations that bring on the sympathy needed to cause reader emotion. The very memorable death of Nell had Americans lining the docks to get their hands on the installment of the magazine with the resolution of that part of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). But Dickens worked himself into a state of near despair to write the scene, turning away offers from friends to visit. In composing that scene he probably went back in his mind to a trauma he had suffered when he watched helplessly as seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law, died in his arms some years earlier.3 The message is clear: to create emotion you must feel emotion. Do not hesitate to use memories from your own life; indeed, you must do so to produce real emotion on the page. Transmuting your own experiences, you will create art and affect your readers as deeply as you yourself have been affected.
Connecting with the reader on an emotional level is a vital
skill that every writer must learn to master. Whatever the genre,
emotion, tension, conflict, and pathos are essential to hooking the
reader’s interest from the very first page. Writing With Emotion, Tension,
& Conflict gives writers a variety of intensive tools and techniques for
accomplishing those goals.
Make Them Wait
I have to admit that mystery novels were never my cup of tea. My mother and sister dote on them, but I usually find them rather formulaic; I honestly couldn’t care less who killed who, and the characters don’t interest me since they’re simply vehicles for the story to reach a conclusion. I say this not to try to convince anyone not to read mysteries but rather to illustrate that even writers who couldn’t care less about mysteries should pay attention when Dickens tells them that an element of mystery—an element, mind you; merely an element—is essential to a well-told story. Who am I, after all, to argue with Dickens!
In a wonderful little book, Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist (1967), Archibald C. Coolidge Jr. advances the very convincing proposition that the serial form of publication put certain pressures on Dickens that forced him to solve a typical novelist’s problems (such as how to maintain reader interest) in strikingly bold ways. What this means is very good for you. It means that Dickens was forced to use his talent to discover and use techniques integral to the novel in a way that are so bold, so striking, and so exaggerated that other writers should find studying his work almost a textbook example of what to do, how to craft stories, and how to create characters people will remember—and care about.4 One of his most important techniques and one which is often overlooked by writers who prefer literary fiction is the use of an element of mystery and suspense. If, like me, you don’t respond well to mystery, you may discount its effectiveness in a mainstream story. But this would be a mistake! It behooves us to learn from the master. Dickens called it his mystery story technique. “He solved the problem of the constant need for advance in plot by creating a mystery … which had alternating sublines.”5 An example of the mystery that runs through Bleak House (1853) is the identity of Esther’s mother. The story also unfolds with many mysterious doings by Lady Dedlock and her husband’s attorney, Tulkinghorn. By the time the truth is revealed, the reader is worked up to a fever pitch of interest. The resolution of the mystery is revealed when Lady Dedlock tells Esther that she is her mother. The scene is given added poignancy when Lady Dedlock warns Esther that they must never speak again! Not only does Esther find her mother in a dramatic way, at the end of a big mystery plot, but she loses her in the same scene. Leave it to Dickens to twist the loose ends of his stories together, interweaving the resolution of the mystery with the fate of Esther.
To provide a mystery in your mainstream novel, you might choose some aspect of the story that can be concealed from the reader. Then play the part of the omniscient writer, who knows all, and do not reveal too much … only tell as much as is needed.
You can use the same Dickensian mystery story technique in your own work by purposefully withholding crucial information, such as who a friend (or enemy) of your hero really is. You can even lead readers in the wrong direction, provided one of the characters legitimately believes the wrong thing, as Pip does when he suspects that his benefactor is Miss Havisham.
Sometimes, the less you tell the more readers love it. So, by all means, make them wait.
William Cane has had a distinguished career as a professor of English at CUNY and Boston College, where he helped a generation of students improve their prose by imitating great writers. Cane is the author of six books, including the international bestseller The Art of Kissing. A highly sought-after speaker on the college lecture circuit, he has appeared on almost every major television talk show, including Today, The View, and CBS This Morning. He lives in Jersey City with his wife and daughter.
1. Dickens 1848. Dombey and Son. New York: Penguin, 1986:377
2. Dickens 1850. David Copperfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983:190
3. Preston, quoted in Dickens 1841. The Old Curiosity Shop. Introduction by Peter Preston. Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions, 1995:xv
4. Coolidge 1967. Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist. Ames: Iowa State University Press:4
5. Coolidge 1967. Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist. Ames: Iowa State University Press:10