On December 19, 1843, Chapman & Hall published a new novella by Charles Dickens that would sell out within the week and go on to become one of the most popular stories in the English language that has inspired several adaptations in plays, movies, and television. That novella was titled A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.—or more commonly (and simply) A Christmas Carol.
It tells the tale of a man named Ebenezer Scrooge, who feels no love or joy in his heart and does not believe in Christmas, its traditions, or the feelings it stirs up in his fellow men and women. On Christmas Eve, he's visited by the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley, who is eternally tortured in his death by his uncaring attitude during life. He warns that Scrooge's path leads to an even worse fate. But Marley has procured Scrooge a hope of avoiding that fate...by being haunted by three spirits.
These spirits teach Scrooge a great deal about life, and A Christmas Carol has much to teach writers about storytelling.
5 Lessons for Writers From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
I've read A Christmas Carol a few times during my life. Recently, I read it with an eye toward lessons writers can learn from Charles Dickens' classic Christmas ghost story.
- Write a catchy opening. A good way to hook readers is with a catchy opening, and A Christmas Carol has that: "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Beginning a story in such a way is sure to make readers question who is Marley, why is he dead, and what does it mean for this particular story? Since the first chapter (or stave) is titled "Marley's Ghost," Dickens probably felt compelled to hammer home this point from the beginning, "Old Marley was as dead as a doornail."
- Give your characters a memorable tic or catchphrase. Giving your characters a memorable tic or catchphrase helps make them more real. For Ebenezer Scrooge, the star of A Christmas Carol, Dickens bestowed, "Humbug!" Most people, whether they're fans of A Christmas Carol or not, know that "humbug" is a term used by Ebenezer Scrooge, but why? Maybe because Dickens has Scrooge exclaim the word five times in the first 22 pages of the story. Then, on page 28, the final paragraph of the first chapter, Scrooge closes the window to his room after Marley departs and "tried to say 'Humbug!' but stopped at the first syllable." The word is only mentioned once more in the story, on page 81, when his nephew recounts how Scrooge claimed Christmas was a humbug the previous day.
- Build a proper structure for your story. There's a reason why Shakespeare's plays all have five acts; it's because a common structure helps an audience know what to expect from a story. Coincidentally, A Christmas Carol is broken into five chapters (that Dickens calls "staves"): "Marley's Ghost," "The First of the Three Spirits," "The Second of the Three Spirits," "The Last of the Spirits," and "The End of It." The first chapter shows Scrooge as a miserable miser; the second examines his past; the third looks at the present; the fourth identifies a possible future; and the fifth chronicles a changed man. The structure is simple and very effective, which is why it's still how every adaptation since continues to tell the tale.
- The story is told in a day. I should say the story is told in a day—and a lifetime. If you look at the "real" time of the story; it starts on Christmas Eve and ends on Christmas Day. But, with the assistance of Marley's three spirits, the story also peers into the past and the future. It's a clever bit of storytelling that makes the story immediate and deep at the same time.
- Scrooge has a compelling character arc. It would be one thing to tell a story in which a mean, old guy is visited by ghosts and continues to be mean—or even dies after seeing the error of his ways. What makes A Christmas Carol a classic story is that Scrooge's essential character changes during the story. In the beginning, he's mean-spirited; in the end, he's filled with love for his fellow men and women and the spirit of Christmas itself. Readers love stories in which a character starts off bad and turns good, or in which a coward does something brave, or in which a cold character displays a great deal of warmth.
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