15 December 2012

Three Takeaways For Writers From "A Christmas Carol"

by Jody Aberdeen

So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Odds are, you've watched yet another version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol".

We're positively awash in so many versions of this story that we no longer question its canonical belonging to the holiday season, whether that version was made seventy years ago or ten years ago, is Muppet-driven, or  Disneyfied. 

Did you know that Dickens' original "A Christmas Carol" came about as part of Dickens' larger campaign to expose the conditions of working children in factories and mines during 1840s Britain? You may also have not heard - until now - that Dickens was an early victim of literary piracy: he actually lost money on "A Christmas Carol" in the long run thanks to the incident.  Regardless, the cultural contribution of "Carol" is undeniable, and this is thanks in large part, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, to the repeated adaptation of his original tale in film.

What are some takeaways that today's writers and authors can get from Scrooge's story? 
1. For starters, you can never predict which of your works will have the greatest impact.  True, Dickens' intentions was to bring about change to the way the British government of the day treated the poor, and especially poor children, but the residual effects of his work throughout the years around the world, and how the world celebrates Christmas, was something he likely never anticipated.  And all from a book that, financially, didn't make him a lot of money. The reach of your words may surprise you, even if it doesn't surprise you all at once.

2. Another takeaway: "A Christmas Carol" shows us the Power of Three.  Anyone who's ever watched and analyzed a Steve Jobs presentation understands what I'm talking about.  In its original version, "Carol" appears in five parts, but the transformative experience that Scrooge undergoes takes place with three spirits representing the three points in time (Past, Present, Future).  

The Power of Three principle, as I understand it, states that the human mind more easily understands and internalizes information when it receives it in three sequential, orderly, and sensible parts.  It's the visitations by the Spirits that stand out most in our minds, isn't it?  That's the heart and power of the entire story.  Of course, I doubt Dickens consciously knew about the Power of Three as "the Power of Three", but you get the point: the proof, as the Cratchit children would say, is in the pudding.

3. Finally (and keeping consistent with my own three point structure), "Carol" is one of the finest success stories of adaptation of a literary work.  There are literally hundreds of different big and small stage productions, television specials, films, radio shows, and animated versions of this story.  It's become an archetype in modern storytelling, and yet the vast majority of people have never read the original novel. 

I make note of it because what happened over the course of nearly two centuries for Dickens can happen within three or four years for any writer living today.  Thanks to e-publishing, self-publishing, YouTube, and the increasing frequency of  Hollywood adaptations, authors have never had a more powerful "reach" for their stories than they do in 2012, even if that reach doesn't include their actual book.  Something to ponder.

Anyway, that's it for my little micro-blog entry.  Peevish Nation, I wish you all a safe and happy holidays, and as a parting gift, here's the closing scene from one of my favorite adaptations of "A Christmas Carol", Bill Murray in "Scrooged".  (I'd offer a spoiler alert, but I'm pretty sure you already know how it ends). 

See you in 2013!


  1. I think the muppets was my favorite. I just love them, but I had no idea about the history behind the whole thing. I'll have to watch it again and maybe find a way to add the power of three to my writing. My main character can drink three cups of coffee perhaps?

  2. Good background on Dickens and 'Carol'. He might have ended up with a profit from it. For a number of years, Dickens toured in Europe and the US giving readings from the story. Levenger Press has a copy of his annotated text with its prompts, abbreviations, and vocal directions. (Note the use of 3.) It is fun to see what he thought was important and how to deliver the text.

    My favorite 'Carol' film is with George C. Scott who plays the part with wit and some courage, not just snivelling.

    Jeff The Bear

  3. Yes, I'm not ashamed to admit that I roll a tear as Bill Murray has his revelatory moment. And I still get a kick out of watching Carol Kane bash him with a toaster :) Maybe that would have earned Dickens more book sales, you think?

  4. I liked this - I remember hearing about the labor connection at one time. As for film adaptation, I can't say which was my favorite one because when I saw the one with Jim Carey in 3D a few years ago in an IMAX theatre in Baltimore I almost lost my lunch and had to close my eyes for the rest of the show. I wonder how Dickens would've felt about that. I have yet to see it at Ford's Theater (tickets cost something like a semester at Duke). I can say however, that I did like the presentation of Want and Greed in that presentation (from what I heard whilst me eyes were closed...) I have tried to read that story aloud to my kids and ... uh... it's nigh impossible for narration. I stumbled many times. And it wasn't because of the nog or my pudding. a'hem.

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  6. (It appears I have a blogger account from back when the Earth was flat. Egads. I had completely forgotten.)

    Power of Three rule is one of my favorites in comedy, and I never really thought of it in relation to A Christmas Carol until you mentioned it, which makes me feel sort of ridiculous right now. :)

    The reach of your words may surprise you, even if it doesn't surprise you all at once.

    I think every writer could use this stitched on a sampler hanging over their computer.