Every Christmas Eve, my whole family gathers around the TV to watch the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. It’s one of our favorite traditions.
(If you haven’t seen this version, you can watch it on YouTube here — I believe it’s the best film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic story.)
No matter how many times I watch it, my heart is always touched by each scene. I feel the happiness of the crowd at Fezziwig’s party. Tears come to my eyes when Bob Cratchit cries over his poor Tiny Tim.
But, most of all, I love Alastair Sim’s wonderful performance as Scrooge — how he convincingly portrays Scrooge’s change from heartless and tightfisted to kind and joyous.
You watch with delight as the once grim man can’t stop laughing and smiling and stunning all with his kindness, even while muttering to himself, “I don’t deserve to be so happy.”
What makes stories like A Christmas Carol so enthralling? Why do we love watching movies like these year after year?
In today’s post, let’s look at one ingredient that makes stories like A Christmas Carol so powerful and emotionally compelling. It’s an ingredient you can use to make any type of writing captivate your readers, whether you’re working on a short story, a blog post, or even a sales page.
Why We Love Stories Like A Christmas Carol
At its heart, A Christmas Carol is a story of transformation.
Scrooge is a bitter miser at the start of the story. Though he is wealthy, he lives in a drafty, sparsely furnished house.
He makes his clerk, Bob Cratchit, work for long hours at little pay and won’t even let him put a little more coal on the fire. He refuses to donate to help the poor, exclaiming that they should either go to the prisons or workhouses or die “to decrease the surplus population.” And you thought your boss was bad. 😉
But Scrooge is given a chance to reverse his life. Three spirits visit him on Christmas Eve and take him on a journey. They show him the past, present, and a possible future if he does not repent of his actions and become a new man.
Over the course of the journey, Scrooge gradually realizes the desperateness of his position and how he has destroyed the lives of others and his own life through his actions.
When the last spirit shows him a gravestone with Scrooge’s name written across it, Scrooge begs the spirit to help him sponge out the name. He says again and again that he’s repented, and he’s not the man he was.
He isn’t lying either. The final scenes of the movie show us just how much Scrooge has changed as he attempts to make up for all of the hurt he has caused.
In fiction writing, what happens to Scrooge is called a character arc. A character begins as one sort of person and transforms into a different sort of person by the end of the story.
Perhaps they are bitter at the start of the story, but, at the end of the story, they learn how to let go of the anger they have caged inside.
In some stories, a character might transform from good to bad. They are innocent and naive at the beginning of the story and gradually become worldly-wise and cruel.
Of course, those stories are usually bleak and depressing, so if you want your readers to feel positive at the end of the story, then you’ll want your character to transform from negative to positive.
How a Character Arc Makes Stories Compelling
Editor Shawn Coyne writes in The Story Grid,
You’ve probably heard a million times that a character must ‘arc.’ What that means…is that the lead character in a story cannot remain the same person he/she was at the end of the novel/movie as they are at the beginning…What the character arc is crucial for is to achieve a cathartic global story climax.
When I say catharsis, I mean an overwhelming emotional reaction from the audience…tears, indescribable joy…the kind of experience that keeps us coming back to the movies, to books, to plays. If you’re a writer and you tell me you have no interest in bringing the audience to catharsis, you’re lying.
Essentially, the transformation of a character has an emotional effect upon the reader. If the story has a positive ending, it fills the reader with hope, encouragement, and a sense of inspiration.
It reassures us that there is the possibility that we too can change our own lives. Life might be dark now, but the clouds will eventually part.
There are stories where characters don’t experience an inner transformation. In many action movies (like James Bond films, for example), the characters remain the same at the beginning and end of the film, except for a few bruises and broken bones.
We watch those movies for the exciting action shots, but they don’t have the same lasting emotional effect on us as they would if the protagonist experienced a deep inner change.
Samwise Gamgee sums this up beautifully in his speech in the film adaptation of The Two Towers,
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
This is why the story of A Christmas Carol resonates with us. When Scrooge journeys with the “Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come”, we see a dark and dreadful world. But this darkness is but a fleeting shadow by the end of the story.
Of course, Dickens’s story of Scrooge was not revolutionary. The theme of transformation is timeless, weaving its way through countless stories down through the ages.
The Christmas story itself is about transformation. God became a child, the baby Jesus in the manger, who would grow up and die to take away the sins of all those who believe in him. Christians believe that in Jesus we can experience the same kind of radical transformation that Scrooge experienced.
How to Include the Theme of Transformation in Your Writing
How can we effectively include the theme of transformation in our own writing?
One of my favorite ways is to follow the outline of the hero’s journey. This is a term coined by American scholar Joseph Campbell to describe one of the most common storylines in literature. A Christmas Carol follows this outline to a T.
Here’s the basic outline:
- A hero is called to go on an adventure to solve some kind of problem. (Every good story has some kind of conflict driving the plot forward.)
- He may be reluctant to accept the call but eventually realizes that if he doesn’t solve the problem, his life will spiral out of control.
- A mentor helps him prepare for the adventure.
- After facing a series of challenges, the story reaches its climax. Will the hero overcome the problem or not?
- The hero emerges victorious and returns home transformed.
If you’d like a deeper analysis of the hero’s journey, I recommend reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
Let’s look at how A Christmas Carol follows this outline.
At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley is the mentor figure who brings Scrooge the call to adventure: Scrooge will be visited by three spirits who will give him a chance to repent and change his life.
Of course, Scrooge is reluctant. He insists that he’s too old for all of this, but he’s whisked away by each of the spirits nonetheless. Eventually, the climax of the story is reached — will Scrooge turn from his ways? He’s already seen what will happen if he does not.
The hero’s journey can be used for any type of writing.
For example, if you’re writing a blog post, you can use the body of your post to take your readers on a journey. Your hero is your blog reader. You are the mentor. Share the steps you took to overcome a problem that the reader is facing. Show what will happen if they don’t solve the problem, the consequences of not taking action. Then show how they will be transformed once they implement those steps.
Or maybe you’re writing the homepage of your website. Let’s say you’re a graphic designer so you explain on your homepage how businesses need to have a professionally designed logo. You paint a picture of the costs of not having a logo. And then you explain how the logo will transform the business and help them stand out from the competition.
That story of transformation will speak far more powerfully to your potential customers than just a list of the services you offer.
In The Memoir Project, Marion Roach observes about our writing, “You have to give readers a reason for this thing to live on in their hearts and minds.”
The theme of transformation allows us to do just that. It elevates our writing to connect on an emotional level with our readers and make a lasting impression on them.
How will you incorporate the theme of transformation in your writing? Is there a movie or book that you love that has the theme of transformation? Let me know in the comments.
And if you are celebrating Christmas (or even if you are not!), I hope you are a having a wonderful holiday season. Merry Christmas!