What Makes a Great Christmas Story?

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

It’s cold outside, the Christmas tree’s up and we’re looking forward to spending quality time with our loved ones in the not too distant future. Of course, we all like to imagine ourselves cozied up by an open fire, blanket pulled over us, a glass of mulled wine in hand, flipping the well-worn pages of a festive read or watching our favorite Christmas movie. It’s all part of our emotional and psychological preparation for the big day. But what exactly makes a great or even, a classic Christmas story?

As always, there needs to be a strong premise, an underlying question at the heart of it that the protagonist is trying to answer and creates tension. Audiences love it when a character is revealed under pressure. Moreover, it needs to capture the attention of the audience, wake them up and get them asking questions of themselves. Fundamentally, there is some form of a journey and the protagonist should experience a transformation by the end of the story. The best stories are those where the reader/viewer feels that they have undergone some change themselves.

Consider this, the Christmas Story itself, that is the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus is perhaps the greatest, most audacious story of all time. It encompasses many elements of great storytelling, love, family, struggle, joy, courage and tragedy.  Not just that, the themes are timeless and as readers, we feel a sense of wonder and awe about it. It might be said that modern day authors/writers can learn a lot about the craft of story-telling from The Nativity.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Why Write a Christmas Story?

Each year the media are looking for new festive stories, whether it’s in book form or a screenplay for programs and films. Write a classic and you’ll have an audience that comes back every year for life. It sounds easy but every year, seasonal books and DVDs end up in bargain bins all over the country and for all those that are released, it’s rare for them to become an endearing classic.

Orna Ross, ALLI’s founder, and Director advises “Every author should have a Christmas book.”  The reason – book sales spike at certain times of the year and Orna goes on to say, “never underestimate the power of holiday sales – Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Summer Holidays, etc.”

By writing a seasonal book, it can give you a unique selling point at a specific time of year. At Christmas time, there also tends to be a shift in sales patterns. People like to purchase something tangible to wrap up, so this can mean they’re more inclined towards printed books. Children’s book sales also spike too. Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, The Snowman and The Snow Dog and Santa Claus) had the right idea!

Click image to purchase book

For self-published authors, if you’re selling your books at seasonal fairs, it can help to have a seasonal book to display. After all, Christmas shoppers are looking out for Christmas items!  They’re more likely to be drawn to your stall if you have a seasonal book on display. And don’t forget to offer to sign books with a personal message as an incentive to buy.

Another positive factor is that a seasonal book also offers lots of possibilities in terms of social media and seasonal hashtags.

Factors to Consider When Writing a ‘Christmas’ Story

Most truly classic Christmas stories transcend religion and have similar themes between them. Here are a few areas to consider before you begin your own Christmas story.

Darkness then Light

During the Winter Solstice, when days are bleak and short, we all look towards Christmas as a celebration, bringing light back into our lives. Such symbolism doesn’t go unforgotten in the most classic of Christmas stories.  In ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, the story begins when George Bailey, depressed and in a dark place, attempts to commit suicide. Yep, you can’t get much darker than that!  In A Christmas Carol, Dickens paints a portrait of a bleak London, the streets filled with beggars, people starving and homeless and of course, those like Scrooge that want to take advantage and are greedy at the hands of their suffering. But here’s the thing, by the end of those classic stories, the protagonist has undergone some major life lessons and as a consequence, has experienced a huge transformation. In effect, they’ve seen the ‘light.’ The film ends on the note that life is good and we, as the audience feel uplifted by it. When we look to a Christmas story, mostly we want to see the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ shine brightly, whichever form that may take, be it joy, happiness, forgiveness, love, and family.

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Reality/Relatable Characters

Classic stories always bring reality into them otherwise it’s difficult for the audience to relate to it. Bringing in real-world problems (such as hunger, finances, poverty, sibling rivalry, divorce, death, depression, greed, crime, one-parent families, day to day struggles) and questions can help to create a stronger juxtaposition with the ‘magic’ of Christmas that you include, be it Santa, Rudolph, ‘the spirit of Christmas’ etc.

Characters, too, need to be relatable in some way. Its important for the audience to engage emotionally with the characters, for something to be stirred within them enough to make them care, otherwise the story will be in danger of falling flat. The central characters should have sense, purpose, conviction, desires and this in turn usually leads to conflict, of which we can all relate. Vulnerability is another aspect which makes characters human and even bad people have vulnerabilities. In general, no person is wholly good or wholly bad though so when we start to see the character’s vulnerabilities, we begin to care and become drawn in.

A Struggle/Conflict

There’s often a struggle involved, whether it be a struggle for the family to get together at Christmas because of logistics, a disagreement or something else that’s keeping them apart, a struggle for a character to get home in time for Christmas, to create the perfect Christmas for their children/family, a sacrifice that has to be made or even a struggle to ‘believe’, (in Father Christmas, the Christmas spirit, God or a higher being!)

Winter Weather

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

We can all probably agree that there’s something magical about snow falling.  It’s romantic, it’s fun and it also puts a barrier between people, making it harder for them to come together. It also sets the scene, brings seasonality to the story and something tangible that the audience can imagine. That said, it’s a cliché and perhaps a very stereotyped western world view of Christmas. Nonetheless, the western world does like that view of Christmas and that’s the way that a large segment of the audience likes to imagine Christmas so not to be pooh-poohed. It may even be the case that some people don’t want their view of Christmas to be tampered with!  

So as a writer, there’s a big decision to make about the target audience. This may determine the location and weather for your story. There are, after all, many countries in the world that don’t have snow at Christmas time so to be truly original, you could set the story in a different location.  Equally, the dark days and nights pulling in can also be great for setting the tone for a much darker or scarier Christmas story. Or perhaps you do you want a quintessentially western Christmas at the heart of the story and if so, then snow and dark winter days may fit right into that.

Childhood

Image by sobima from Pixabay

There’s nothing more wonderful than watching the excitement of children at Christmas time. From little hands waving at their parents when they spot them in the audience of their school nativity play, to the first smell of gingerbread and then the anticipation of the big fella himself arriving with his reindeer in tow to deliver much-wanted gifts on Christmas Eve, seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child thrusts us straight back into childhood and once again, we can experience pure, untainted excitement and our heart grows full of sentimentality and nostalgia for Christmas’s past.

In Christmas stories written for children, it’s true to say that Santa often appears in some form. For many of us, Santa embodies the magic and anticipation of Christmas, the Christmas spirit as it were, giving presents out as an act of kindness, with no wish to receive anything back (unless you count mince pies and Sherry) Saying that, even Santa isn’t enough to carry a story. It needs more than that– for example, belief, love, forgiveness, conflict, sorrow, friendship, generosity and so on.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

As with the adult classics, many children’s classics recognize darkness first before the ‘light’ is introduced into the story. Take Hans Christian Andersen’s, ‘The Little Match Girl’, such a sorrowful and sad tale, where on New Year’s Eve, she roams the street selling matches and pennies to keep her and her father fed. This story takes darkness a step further. Afraid to go back to her father, having not sold all the matches, she huddles down, trying to warm herself, the air, freezing, and lights a match where she sees a vision of her grandmother, the only person ever to have shown love and kindness to her. To keep the vision alive as long as possible, she lights all of the matches and when the last one dies out, she dies from the cold too, at peace that she is with her grandmother once again. At first, it’s hard to see the light.  It seems pretty dark and dismal but her dreams and love for her Grandmother provide the ‘light’ in this classic Christmas story.

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Other stories like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Snow Queen illustrate darkness in some form first, then a journey and transformation by the character and the ending, of course is full of ‘light’.  ‘The Polar Express’, now a film, on the other-hand, does a fantastic job of tackling the powerful subject of ‘belief’ and the importance to believe. The symbolism of using a train to visually illustrate the main protagonist Chris’s (Christopher) emotional and psychological journey is genius.

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Uniqueness

There are countless stories about people falling in love at Christmas. If you’re going to write one, it’s important to think about what you can bring to it that’s unique. Consider the location, characters, dialogue, and the central premise. It will need a new angle! Likewise, there are already lots of stories about Santa, kids, and puppies. If you want to use them, you’re going to need to get creative, think about those things that have been written about on a lesser basis or not at all. Consider new locations, new traditions, different cultures at Christmas, ways that Christmas is celebrated within other countries, people less fortunate at Christmas, what Christmas means in today’s world, how today’s technology has changed Christmas, Christmas in the future, social media, alternative Christmas’s, Characters that wouldn’t necessarily be related to Christmas and so on.

Final Words

Writing a Christmas Classic that becomes part of a country’s narrative and brings joy to its people year after year is one of the most sought-after Holy Grail’s of writing. It’s so easy to get it wrong though and every year, many author’s Christmas stories fall by the wayside, drifting out of people’s consciousness almost as quickly as they had arrived.

It’s blatantly clear that writing a classic Christmas story is difficult. Its important to include relatable characters facing real-world problems which engage with the audience when writing your story. It also seems that there is a certain formula that has worked in the past which can’t be ignored, that is, the protagonist embarks on a journey through darkness, then transformation and finally sees and experiences the ‘light’ in some way as the culmination. Those stories that have succeeded and become our favourite Christmas classics have, as we’ve seen, captured this is such a way that the audience has connected and empathised with the main character and they themselves, have felt truly moved and transformed by the end of the story.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If you liked this post, you may like to read the following:

http://blog.writanon.com/2010/12/06/elements-of-a-good-christmas-story/ https://selfpublishingadvice.org/writing-why-every-author-should-write-a-christmas-book-and-a-book-for-all-seasons/ https://www.buzzfeed.com/colinheasley/heartwarming-christmas-stories https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/nov/best-books-to-get-you-in-the-mood-for-christmas/ https://sdsouthard.com/2014/12/02/writing-a-good-christmas-story-four-things-to-consider/

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