Monday, December 12, 2016

Mental Can Openers & Writer's Hash ~ "I'll Not Shut Out The Lessons They Teach" via A Christmas Carol

Dickens has always been a favorite and every year my father would read A Christmas Carol to us over the course of several nights.  See what Brad Leach has gleaned from that venerable story.

I have always struggled with my writing around the holidays. And I blame it all on Charles Dickens. Good luck firing up the muse when your personal high water mark includes A Christmas Carol.

Talk about character arc? A miserly man, alone, who prefers it that way. So nasty he gleefully shoos away crippled children, begrudges the freezing a piece of coal, even argues with the ghost of a former partner, insisting he’s a result of indigestion. 

Then, literally overnight, he changes into London’s St. Nicholas. He gives extravagantly to the poor and needy, sends a prize turkey as a surprise gift, and praises the ghosts and Christmas time.

How’s it measure on the adage, “Show, don’t Tell?” We aren’t told Scrooge hates carolers; he bursts through their ranks grumbling, flushing them out of his way with a walking stick. He doesn’t say he’s frustrated with the ghosts; he extinguishes one, only to find he has his bedding. Declaring he’s changed, he pays a boy for an errand, orders a gift turkey, and pays for a cab.

Dialogue? So many to choose from. But who doesn’t get a shiver when Scrooge declares, “If they would rather die, then they had better do it - and decrease the surplus population.” Or when he asks if Tiny Tim will live and the ghost declares, “I see a vacant seat... in the poor chimney corner. And a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved.... If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

Tag lines? Try “dead as a doornail,” “Bah humbug,” “God bless us, every one,” “picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December,” and “an old Scrooge.”

Narrative? “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.... He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.” So how can I then settle for my, “he was a cold and calculating man...”?

Back story cleverly woven into the text? Just observe the Ghost of Christmas Past. Secondary characters? Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Old Fezziwig. These are memorable characters whose every action play to our heart-strings or moving the story forward. Moral themes? Ignorance and Want. Dickens addresses poverty, social reform, redemption, and second chances. He doesn’t do social commentary, he motivates the heart; all in just under 29,000 words.

So I remember that this special holiday includes centuries of authors and screenplay writers best efforts. Delivered in concentrated form in one single month. Oscar-winning movies, classic stories and poems, sentimental favorites; they all set a high bar. Of course we expect to be moved by poignant emotions as we consider this time of holy redemption. How do you write to top that?

I can’t. Instead, I realize my stories will seem inadequate. I will feel they falter in the light of talent like Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol towards the end of his career. Christmas presents some of the greatest stories 2,000 years of Western Civilization has produced.

Instead, I study the great techniques of such stories. I ask if there is some way I can apply that technique? And I cling to my pen and laptop, waiting until January and February, when the magic fades, the measuring stick shortens, and even my bare stories appeal again. And as Scrooge vowed not to shut out the lessons the ghosts taught, let us embrace the classics and the inspiration they give this season.

~ Brad


  1. As always, you've given us a post to ponder, Brad. I've always enjoyed the story and the idea that even Scrooge was redeemable, but I never analyzed Dickens's prose the way you did. Great job!

    1. Thank you Amanda. That is the hope, isn't it. Even Scrooge was redeemable. Thanks for the input.

  2. Thanks, Brad. One more thing I must add. Have we ever, in our holiday lives, been Scrooge ourselves in some way or another, or known a Scrooge? I love your treatment of this timeless tale. As the redeemed Scrooge might say, "Happy Christmas."

    1. Ever known a Scrooge? In our family, you must be kidding? Our clan would mug the three ghosts and hold the last one until he co-signed on a loan! Some of our holidays have more closely resembled the Exchange scene buying corn, just before it's closing! My Mom and Dad would probably fight over whether we could re-sell Tiny Tim's crutch for beer money!
      Anyway, I agree -- Merry Christmas to all.

  3. This is from Jane Choate:
    A CHRISTMAS CAROL has long been a favorite of mine. Thank you, Brad, for bringing it alive to me in a whole new way.

    1. Jane, Thank you for being so faithful in reading and commenting. I always look forward to your positive comments like a fresh water on a hot day.

      And thanks L.A. for being willing to forward those. You did a great job with the graphics again. Per usual, of course.