Each year the media world is starving for new holiday stories. They want them for the bookshelves, for the TV screens, and the cinemas. So why wouldn’t any struggling writer (which is 98% of us) not want to give the old Santa Claus an adventure or two?
It pays the bills and, maybe, you will unwrap the golden present. In other words, create a holiday tale that becomes a classic, one that audiences return to yearly… which can also pay the bills yearly as well.
The problem is that for all of the attempts to make that blessed holiday classic it so, so rarely happens. Most holiday tales disappear at the end of the year. The books and the DVDs end up in the bargain bins, and the TV specials and movies are shown at random times in the early morning (if they are shown at all).
Recently, I reviewed a new collection of holiday short stories called My True Love Gave to Me (edited by Stephanie Perkins). My review will be on WKAR’s Current State later this month. I don’t want to say too much about my review here, but the book, in the end, just left me feeling sad.
Not exactly a Christmas feeling, I know, and probably not the one most of those contributors were hoping for. But it is a common feeling for me each year as I dare to check out the new holiday samplings from my fellow writers.
So why is it so difficult to write a good Christmas story? Basically, it is because most holiday writers seem to forget four important stocking-stuffing-ho-ho-ho points. These points are what separate the classics from… well… anything on the Hallmark Channel.
The Dark Side
The reason why most religions have holidays around the Winter Solstice is that cultures want to celebrate the return to light. For after the darkest day, there is hope. That period is rich in symbolism and it works for stories as well.
This is an important point, because all of the classic holiday tales recognize this darkness. They don’t run away from it. Consider:
- It’s a Wonderful Life begins with a suicide attempt. Let me repeat that- a suicide attempt. Our hero, George Bailey, has a lot of darkness in his life from the death of his father, the loss of hearing in one ear, a beating from the pharmacist, never succeeding in his dreams, etc. When you step back to look at it, It’s a Wonderful Life is hardly that for most of the film.
- Let’s talk about A Christmas Carol. So many people want to escape to Dickens’ London and walk those streets, but those streets are full of beggars, people struggling to feed their families, and others who are about to lose their homes at the hands of greedy men like Scrooge. To make it even more bleak we have Tiny Tim, a poor crippled child who will die if the funds are not supplied to save him (there is a strong argument for universal health care). And that is not even with discussing the lost dreams and loves of Scrooge.
- Miracle on 34th Street has Santa almost committed for attacking a man.
- And did you see Charlie Brown’s tree?
Do I need to go on?
What these writers recognized is that the darker you go, the brighter the light is at the end. Just like the Winter Solstice. So if you want your story to strum the heart-strings, make people care, take them to the dark side first!
No Cynics Allowed
It is so easy to be cynical about Christmas. I think a part of that is we all have in us a little bitter child remembering that moment when they discovered that Santa is not real.
One of the things I found very annoying in many of the stories of My True Love Gave to Me is the amount of cynicism of the characters. Everyone seemed to want to put down the holiday and the man in the red suit.
Recently, I watched with my kids a Disney holiday film called Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmas. While my kids (and I do too) love the sequel, Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas, the first one is an awful mess not fit for children consumption. Yeah, overall, the first film is a disaster and has possibly one of the evilest Christmas stories I think I have seen. You ready for this?
Both films are a collection of holiday stories and in the first (in a children’s cartoon let me remind you) an adult tells a child there is no Santa Claus and then laughs at the child. And the rest of the short follows this depressed child dealing with it, much like someone does around the loss of a friend.
Seriously, I was watching this with my kids, horror-stricken that Mickey Mouse just ruined Christmas for my little children. (It is followed by a tale of Mickey and Minnie being poor in a variation of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi which I think is a story that would be lost on most kids. Like I said, bad film, avoid it.)
See, there is a difference between darkness and just being evil. And the last thing a viewer/reader wants is an author mocking them for their beliefs, throwing them in their faces. People don’t want to hear nasty jokes made at the expense of a holiday that they care about. Chances are, the audience that want to see Santa taken down a few notches are not tuning in or opening the pages of your book anyway. You are preaching to the wrong crowd!
The Real World
It begins with newspapers and footage of real children. See, even that odd classic (It has an elf who wants to be a dentist, it is odd!) tries to bring in reality.
It is rare that any story without giving the audience something to relate to works. The only one I can think of is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! By Dr. Seuss. And really, none of us are Dr. Seuss.
One of the best examples of reality helping a holiday story succeed is Miracle on 34th Street (the classic, not the 90s remake). Throughout the story Santa is in our world, and he deals with real world problems and questions. The reality helps make his magic more magical; like the moment when he speaks with a child in a different language.
Find a way to introduce reality in your story, possibly in the beginning. It will give the audience a basis to understand the “awe” of the rest of the story.
This is a big one and the most difficult. But this is the same problem any writer has to deal with when they put a pen to paper.
You need to do something unique! You can’t just give the world another story of people finding love around the holiday, unless there is something different in how it is done. Being unique is what stands your story apart from others, and also might make it last more than one holiday cycle.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t write about Saint Nick. You can, as long as you are adding to the mythology. If it, for example, is another story about children (or puppies) helping Santa deliver presents, that ain’t it.
Find that new twist, that new character, that new moment that has not been captured before.
What is the difference between a Christmas story or a story at any other time in the year?
A good story is a good story.
And if you decide to write a holiday tale, you need to give it the same amount of time you would give any other work you attempt. So take the time to write believable characters (within reason, of course), and avoid stereotypes (or two-dimensional characters), corny jokes or weak dialogue. Take the time! The audience will know if you do. A story should not be lesser for happening around December 25th.
See, in the end, it is just a date on the calendar.
We choose to make it special. It’s just too bad that so many writers, publishers, producers, and TV executives forget that each year.
If fiction is more your thing, I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan.
You can find all of these books via my amazon.com author page here. Thanks for reading!
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