Since its publication in 1843, Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol has become one of the most iconic holiday stories—perhaps even the most iconic—in Western literature. Not only has it been adapted countless times for the stage and screen, in reimaginings and retellings, but it is also credited with traditionalizing many of the Christmas celebrations we enjoy today.
Writers of all kinds have much to learn from this holiday classic. Discover the top four lessons you can apply to your craft, regardless of what genre, age group or form you're writing for.
1. A rich and distinctive setting and tone can make your story more memorable and immersive.
As I mentioned before, Dickens' story is largely credited with crafting our contemporary idea of a "traditional" Christmas celebration and the overall aesthetic associated with it. That is to say, A Christmas Carol quite literally transformed some of celebratory practices detailed in the novella into holiday staples, including many of the seasonal dishes we enjoy, as well as the prevalence of family gatherings, dancing, games, generosity, and the festive Christmas spirit.
Dickens managed this by leveraging a setting and tone that infectiously captured and more broadly popularized a revival of the Christmas holiday that was growing in Victorian English culture at the time. The setting, of course, is Victorian London, but Dickens' brings us a London ringing with seasonal spirit:
For, the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball—better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest—laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.
Apoplectic opulence. How's that for a narrative helping of Christmas cheer?
The setting is further enhanced because it changes with Scrooge. Early in the tale, the streets are described as "Foggier yet, and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold." The bleakness even follows the bleak character: "Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern." The setting is as forbidding as the protagonist. But by the end, both Scrooge and his surroundings have done a tonal 180 thanks to his night of forcible self-reflection:
"Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!"
Dickens was particularly skilled at setting distinctive scenes like this, but he's far from the only author whose settings have a distinctive "flavor." Recall how easy it is to picture the sights, smells and sounds at Hogwarts, for example, or in Rivendell, the West Egg, the Hundred-Acre Wood, or Sleepy Hollow.
While some readers prefer minimal descriptions, there's no doubt that authors who spend the time spinning tonal elements that are peculiar to their narratives—with more grandiosity like Dickens or more sparingly like Milne—are often fondly remembered for it. As an added benefit, elements like these also tend to do some of the legwork for those looking for easily-adaptable stories for screen and stage.
2. The Rule of Threes is a mighty useful storytelling device.
It's in books, fables, jokes, slogans, ads, plays, movies, speeches, the Declaration of Independence. Three little pigs, three musketeers, three wise men, three acts, signing in triplicate, liberté, égalité, fraternité.
You know it, you love it—it's the Rule of Threes.
Dickens' three timely Christmas ghosts are among the most well-known uses of the Rule of Threes, and for good reason: Each one marks a different level of growth in old Ebenezer's night of emotional transformation.
Not only that, the ghosts illustrate the use of the Rule of Threes as a structural device.
Nitpickers here might point out that there are, in fact, four ghosts, given that Jacob Marley warns Scrooge of his impending adventure. They might also point out that the novella is divided, not into three acts, but five "Staves," named after a musical staff, or the set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that each represent a different pitch in musical notation. Because it's a Christmas CAROL. (Oohhhhh...)
But the ghosts and the Staves still fit into the Rule of Threes.
Their influence on Scrooge serves the story as a micro three-act structure in the macro three acts of the larger story: Marley's warning wraps up the first act. The Past, Present and Future ghosts and their corresponding three Staves occupy the bulk of the novella as the second act. Each brings a different lesson as we build up to Scrooge's climactic revelation that his humbuggery will lead to everyone he knows celebrating his impending demise (not to mention the way-more-tragic demise of an adorable kid with a disability) unless he embraces a major attitude adjustment, which he does in Stave Five, or Act 3.
Of course, this doesn't mean that you have to include three ghosts or other on-the-nose symbols in your story so blatantly. But there's a lot you can do with threes in a story: Having your MC endure three trials can teach them a well-rounded lesson. Even loosely following that three-act structure, into which Joseph Campbell's 17 steps of a hero’s journey neatly fit, can help you form your characters' trajectory into a coherent beginning, middle and end that will satisfy your readers. Having two side characters to accompany your MC can help you create balance, suspense and richer perspective. The possibilities are endless.
3. "The intimacy of insight" helps when demonstrating character growth, and can make an unlikeable character more sympathetic.
As I've said, one benefit to the three-part journey is its suitability for unfolding believable character growth and change.
As you know, Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of this story. He's also a complete asshole—at least, at the beginning. And unlike many complicated antiheroes and sympathetic jerks from fiction, he's not particularly likeable either. We all know, of course, that he decides to stop being a complete asshole at the end, and that the story is, at its core, about what leads him to that transformation. (Hint: It's the charitable and familial spirit of Christmas.) "It's the journey, not the destination," and all that jazz.
Obviously this would not work if all we saw what the other characters in the story see: Ebenezer goes to sleep an asshole and wakes up not-an-asshole.
Therefore we need what David Corbett recently called "the intimacy of insight." In his piece on writing antiheroes and unlikeable characters, Corbett explains that "we tend to judge less harshly characters who look at themselves and their behavior clearly, honestly and in-depth." The intimacy of insight gives us the window-into-the-soul required to realize that Holden Caulfield and Dexter Morgan are more than a whiny little shit and a serial killer.
Scrooge seems impervious to empathy and incapable of self-reflection at the beginning of the story. So instead of initiating a transformative journey himself, he must be whisked away on a dreamy adventure in which self-reflection is hammered into his thick skull by magical Christmas ghosts.
And we, the readers, must see this played out. Because we're granted the "intimacy of insight"—that is, we're able to see Scrooge gradually learn why being a gigantic jerk to his overworked employee with a disabled kid is bad, and why he would probably have a way better time if he embraced the generosity and celebration of the holiday season—his transformation is believable despite being fantastical.
4. Don't be afraid to bend and blend genres if it serves your story.
A Christmas Carol is as much a ghost story as it is a Christmas story. In fact, its full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. And the first words in the novella are "Marley was dead, to begin with." (Heck of a way to start a cheery holiday tale, eh?) It also fits the bill of a fable, a deconstructed hero's journey, an example of magical realism, and even a story of time travel, so to speak.
Dickens isn't generally known as a writer of the fantastic or magical. I wrote my undergrad thesis on his work, which required me to read the vast majority of his novels, and I would categorize his most common story line as "Victorian orphan experiences a lot of dismal but oddly funny things and ends up mostly OK at the end." Not much magic to be had there beyond the magic of his inventive prose. Occasionally another ghost will crop up, but they're usually far more mundane.
But for a story about the power of the holiday spirit, Dickens busted out the fairy dust and jolly giants and grim reapers, embracing the fantastic to create the Ghosts of Christmas Verb Tenses and their time-traveling hijinks.
Sure, you could argue that much of that is in Scrooge's dream-addled psyche, but this technique wouldn't make sense in a more realistic story like Oliver Twist or Bleak House. For A Christmas Carol, it works. Dickens could have simply had Scrooge fall asleep and dream of his past, present and future without the help of his colorful trio of spirits—but it's their presence and characterization that makes the story one of the most memorable holiday tales ever told.
Many authors fear that venturing too far beyond the conventions of a given genre can make a book difficult to sell—and that's not entirely inaccurate. But if the historical fiction story you're telling is better served by tossing in some sci-fi, go for it! After all, that's how we ended up with the steampunk genre. Many authors have found great success from this technique, in fact: Douglas Adams mashes up comedy and sci-fi; Diana Gabaldon frames her historical romance with fantasy; Stephen King stitches suspense into all sorts of genres.
If you haven't read or watched or listened to some variation of A Christmas Carol this year I highly recommend it. But this time, as you're enjoying it, watch out for more writing lessons tucked within this classic tale—there's far more to be learned than what I've laid out here.