It is Christmas time and what better event to attend than the theatrical production of Charles Dickens’ beloved story, A Christmas Carol. I took in this timeless holiday classic last week and as expected, it lived up to my great expectations (pun intended.)
This moving story once again rejuvenated my Christmas spirit because, as Dickens intended, it speaks to the heart about love, charity, kindness, the plight of the poor, and human suffering, while inspiring us to make our life count.
At the intermission, I gazed around the ornate Pabst Theater in Milwaukee and let my mind drift. How do you write such a timeless classic? How did Dickens pen something that would strike a chord in the heart and soul of everyone that would read it? How do you develop a main character with such dimension, conviction, flaws and redeeming value? How do you sketch so many minor characters with such personality and charm?
Since watching this wonderful stage production of what is still the bestselling Christmas book of all time, I have observed eight writing tips to remember from Charles Dickens and his beloved character, Ebenezer Scrooge.
- Write a story that resonates. Dickens hit on all the elements that create a good story. A complex main character (Scrooge). Timing (Christmas time). Setting (London). Values (kindness, forgiveness, repentance, restitution). Uniqueness (The Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future). Conflict (Scrooge’s internal struggle to choose between love or money). Crisis (His impending death). Climax (His moment of decision). Resolution (His change of heart). Conclusion (Restored relationships, Tiny Tim survives).
- Start with a memorable character. Who could be more memorable than Ebenezer Scrooge? He has left an indelible mark on all of us. We love him despite his flaws.
- Write what you know. Writing 101 says “write what you know.” Dickens knew London; he lived there. He knew poverty; his parents were delivered to debtors’ prison while he, at 12, worked in a warehouse for six shillings a week.
- Write with passion. Dickens’ sister-in-law wrote that she had never seen Dickens write with such fervor than when he wrote A Christmas Carol. In just six weeks he wrote a story for the ages. Within two months of its debut, eight theater companies adapted and mounted the story on stage. Critics hailed it “a national institution” a year later. It would become his most memorable work. He was 31.
- Let your subconscious do some of the work. Like so many writers, Dickens got away from his work—to do his work. His sister-in-law once reported that he “walked about the black streets of London, fifteen or twenty miles, many a night” while plotting this endearing story.
- Introduce an innovative element. Dickens used common literary techniques with flashback and flash-forward devices. Yet, he did it innovatively with the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
- Maintain a disciplined writing schedule. As I mentioned earlier, Dickens wrote steadily and fervently and completed it in six weeks. While there is not much detail concerning his actual writing schedule, it’s clear he pushed himself to achieve a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. His masterpiece was published on December 19, 1843.
- Give the reader something to think about. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of this classic tale. It gives us pause every time we read it or see it. A question always lingers in my head. How can my life benefit others?
These are just a few writing tips to remember from Charles Dickens. But what can we learn about being a better writer from that crusty old Ebenezer Scrooge?
We can learn how a multi-dimensional main character has the power to capture and captivate an audience—for generations. And, we can learn that although Charles Dickens made Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s also true that Ebenezer Scrooge made Charles Dickens.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
Jim Magruder is an award-winning advertising copywriter and speechwriter, and has recently completed a novel. He has had magazine articles published in Writer’s Digest, Marriage Partnership, Home Life, Christian Communicator, Christian Single, Today’s Freelance Writer, and The Art of Self Promotion. He blogs on the writing life at The Writer’s Refuge. (www.thewritersrefuge.wordpress.com)