A simple method to clearly see why a story is powerful
A Christmas Carol
Tonight I’m going to the theatre to see A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This version features 12 Christmas carols. It was not my only option for watching the story in Melbourne this year. There is also an Australian Opera version, and The Muppet Christmas Carol is being screened with a live orchestra playing the music.
The story was first published in 1843, and has endured 177 years and been adapted and retold over and over. It is a story that I have read, watched on television and seen on the stage many times. Why return to the same story again and again? What is so powerful about this story?
And what is often missing when, as a book coach, I look at a client’s story?
The bookends method
What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.
— Xunzi (340–245 BC)
The key to the endurance of A Christmas Carol is at the heart of all story — change. Scrooge undergoes a dramatic transformation from the start of the story to the end. From Bah Humbug to Merry Christmas. When we experience the story, we see that such a major transformation is possible and it gives us hope — hope for ourselves, for our society and for humankind.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol after seeing the poverty of the working people of Manchester in Northern England. His tale made Christmas more popular and promoted the idea of charity at Christmas time. In the story Scrooge is transformed, and it has changed how we view the holiday.
How can you most dramatically see the change that occurs in Scrooge from the start of the story to the end? You could read the whole book and see how the visitation of the three ghosts gradually affects him. But to most easily see the change, I suggest you look at just the first and last chapter.
Using the bookends method:
- Read the first chapter of the book and write down how the character is described and the actions of the character
- Read the last chapter of the book and write down how the character is described and the actions of the character
In the first chapter of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is described as having a “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone” and as being “solitary as an oyster.”
His actions include:
- Refusing to give his employee, Bob Cratchit, the day off for Christmas
- Dismissing the idea of Christmas as “humbug” and expressing his disdain for the holiday
- Refusing to make a donation to a charity that collects money for the poor
- Dismissing his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner, and telling him to “keep Christmas in his own way”
- Sending a boy who comes to his door singing Christmas Carols away empty-handed, despite the fact that it is a cold and snowy night
In the last chapter of the book Scrooge is described as being “as good a man as the good old city knew,” and as being “as merry as a schoolboy.”
His actions include:
- Giving a large donation to the poor
- Buying a big turkey and bringing it to Bob Cratchit’s house to feed his family
- Giving Bob Cratchit a raise and offering to help him improve his living situation
- Visiting his nephew and participating in his Christmas celebration
- Spreading good cheer and happiness to those around him
Actions speak louder
Scrooge’s transformation is described by the narrator, we are told that he has changed. What has much more power, however, are the actions. These show the change.
Looking through the list of actions in the first and last chapter they form pairs that show how he has changed. From refusing Bob Cratchit a day off to giving him a raise. From refusing to make a donation to the poor to giving a large one. From refusing his nephew’s invitation to participating in their celebration.
The Light Triad
In yesterday’s post, Writing Complex Bad Guys Like in Game of Thrones, I talked about using The Dark Tetrad to make your villains more convincing.
For our protagonist we can look at their transformation through The Light Triad — Kantianism, humanism and faith in humanity.
Named after Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, this is a measure of how you treat people as ends unto themselves, not as a means to an end.
Scrooge starts the story as low on Kantianism. He is thinking about what he can get out of others. Bob is a means to make money, and those asking for donations are drains on his wealth. He refuses his nephew’s invitation as a waste of his time.
By the end of the story he is high on this scale. By giving Bob a raise he shows his appreciation of him. The donation he gives to the poor values them as people, beyond their current circumstances. His nephew’s invitation to Christmas is taken up and appreciated as deepening their relationship.
This is a measure of how you value the dignity and worth of each individual. It looks at whether you value honesty over charm, or use deception to get your own way.
On this measure Scrooge starts the story high and ends the story high. He is honest and forthright, brutally so. Their is no deception about him, he is greedy and selfish but doesn’t try to hide the fact. At the end of the story Scrooge is demonstrative about his new feelings, he doesn’t try to hide them because he is ashamed of who he was before.
Faith in humanity
This is a measure of your belief in the fundamental goodness of humans. It looks at whether you see the best in people or you are suspicious and untrusting.
Scrooge starts the story low on this measure. He is suspicious of those asking for money. When Bob asks for a day off, Scrooge doesn’t trust that Bob won’t take advantage of him if he gives it. He refuses his nephew’s invitation because he doesn’t appreciate his way of keeping Christmas.
By the end of the story Scrooge is higher on this measure. He gives to the poor, without fearing they will ask for more. Bob is given a raise without Scrooge worrying he will become lazy because of it. His nephew’s invitation is accepted without worrying he will be mocked.
The bookends method is a simple way to see for yourself how powerful stories involve dramatic transformation. I challenge you to try it on a book you love.