Thursday, December 20, 2018

Writing Holiday-Themed Fiction: What Works and What Doesn't?

Okay, writerly types, I've decided that in spite of my busy schedule this season, we are NOT going to let the holidays slide by without at least ONE writer's roundtable for the blog. 

It's as open-ended as questions can come...

What makes a holiday story work?

(If you need to be specific, you can tell me whether or not it needs a "moral" or it must be drenched in holiday decor or can be peripherally Christmas -- like Die Hard. Your call.)

I.A. Watson: New Year is probably the most popular specific time of year for pulp fiction. That’s when Honest Jack Action huddles in the corner of a smoky bar, lost in the booze and the past, almost oblivious of the classy dame shimmying towards him. It’s exactly when Dr Destructo intends to set off his Mindworm Devices to conquer the Earth. It’s when Vic Valiant has to chase the villain across the snowy rooftops while Big Ben tolls midnight and the fuses burn down around the Commissioner’s daughter.

Christmas is a competitor too, because it’s fun to juxtapose those warm log fires and yellow-lit interiors with the bleak blizzard outside, and dark deeds seem that much darker against a cosy yuletide backdrop. But even Christmas can’t match the pulpy power of the year ending and a new one starting for good or ill.

Most stories set on Earth either ignore the season or generalise. Maybe the weather had to be bad for plot reasons, or there’s a specific season for a pathetic fallacy; falling leaves are excellent for that, and so is frozen earth (especially round graves). But I’m hard pressed to think of any story that takes place on New Year’s Eve or at Christmas by accident.

That’s because fiction has to be more believable than real life, and because writers need to focus their readers on only those things relevant for the story they have to tell. In the same way that the hero doesn’t bump into a neighbour who’s on his way to the laundry and get into a chat about his maiden aunt’s lumbago unless it fiendishly turns out to be somehow plot-relevant in the end, so remarkable weather and notable times of day distract from the story and are thus omitted.

For example, how would “Farewell, My Lovely” been improved by Christmas trees? In what way would “The Problem at Thor Bridge” have been bettered by occurring at New Year? Any stories accidentally happening at Easter, Hallowe’en, or any solstice or equinox are simply impossible.

That’s because some holidays and some extreme weather forms are so distinctive that they have a narrative pull all of their own. New Year’s Eve can never be a neutral backdrop. The characters simply have to react to it or seem unrealistic. Unless the hero spends a moment with his old regrets or the villain is motivated by a burning resolution to wreak vengeance before the calendar turns, the time seems like a distraction, a nagging plot thread that doesn’t fit. If it’s New Year, or Christmas, or thunder storming, or blizzarding, or a heatwave then it has to either be plot relevant or mood-setting. Literary convention insists on no less.

On the other hand, stories that do avail themselves of readers’ expectations of an intimate family Christmas or of the countdown to the next millennium have a powerful tool. The problem is it’s a much-used tool. If the writer wants to present a Christmas ghost story then the Ghost of Dickens Past peers over his shoulder. Any fictional teens who decide to spend a night making out in the old abandoned mansion on Hallowe’en must beware cliché as much as the mad old groundkeeper. And archvillains about to launch the New World Order as the year turns had better book their place in the rota early, because there’ll be a queue.

As the new year approaches, we ignore the fact that our calendar is somewhat arbitrary and take the opportunity to reflect upon joys, sorrows, and sins past, upon achievements and failures, upon lost friends and precious memories. We’re also drawn to the future, to hopes or fears for the days ahead, to new resolutions, to changes that the coming days must mark. New Year is a birthday that the whole world shares, with similar celebrations and self-analysis. And so it is for our characters, with all the dramatic potential that offers. A writer’s challenge is to use the setting as skilfully as any other pulp trope – the driving rain, the teeming railway platform, the unrelenting desert heat, the funeral of a friend etc – and make that countdown… count.

Let the world tremble. The hour comes!

Sarah Lucy Beach: The holiday needs to be inherent in the story in some fashion. Die Hard works because the setting constantly reminds us of the pending holiday. And spending Christmas with his wife and kids is McClane's driving motivation.

Whereas even though the opening of Jurassic World indicates the movie takes place during the Christmas holiday, there is absolutely nothing in the story that requires it to be that season, not in character motivation or in anything they say or do.

It's not so much that a holiday movie has to have a "moral", but rather that the story ought to reflect the nature of the holiday involved, whether it's Christmas, Halloween, or Arbor Day.

Another story that does a good job of weaving the holiday into the story is Coco (using the Mexican Day of the Dead).

Jennifer M. Contino: I have to feel a little choked up at the end with warm and fuzzies.

Andy Sheehan: I've written two Christmas stories and they both carried the same theme: reconnection with loved ones. Die Hard (the greatest Christmas movie ever) has the same theme. You can't have a Christmas movie with the protagonist riding off alone into the sunset.

Curtis Dumal: I'd say most have a character who doesn't like people or Christmas and is generally misunderstood.

Jamais Jochim: It just needs to be tied to the holiday. Batman Returns happens during Christmas, but nothing really ties it to the holiday. On the other hand, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a holiday not just because of Rudolph's job, but also because it ties into the family aspect of Christmas.

Otherwise, there really is no prerequisite for it...

Ron Fortier: I can't answer that question without first stating, I'm a Christian and I believe with all my heart and soul that Jesus came into this world to save us all. That is why we celebrate that holiday.  Now once anyone understands that narrative, it becomes easy to see how it has so many different elements and each can be the focus of the story.  "A Christmas Carol" is all about redemption and understanding what is important in life.  "A Wonderful Life" is about the value every good person in this world and to never forget that simple fact. "A Christmas Story" is about nostalgia for days when families enjoyed the season with all its hectic activity so that at the end, it was about being gathered together on Christmas morning with those you loved the most.

I'm sure you'll get lots of different answers, but honestly, unless it has to do with Christmas, with children, with Santa, with magic, with love and forgiveness and above all else, hope.  It's not a Christmas story.

Heather A. Titus: To me, there’s always a faint wonder and magic around Christmas time. I get a glowing, joyful feeling every time I see a tastefully decorated tree, or Christmas lights, and when my family gathers for hot drinks and cookies. If a holiday story can successfully capture that joy, it’s a win for me.

Stephanie Osborn: I think there needs to be a core focus on the holiday by at least one of the characters, and if there is angst to be had because of the holiday, that ups the ante.

For instance, one of my Division One books is set at Christmas, and one of the two main characters is torn between anticipation and dread -- Christmas was always important to her family, but around a decade or so before the story, her family was killed (murdered) the day before Christmas Eve. She tries to keep up family traditions (given that she's the only survivor by dint of being targeted by the perp to cause max pain), and in fact jumps into celebrating with both feet, but it's hard, because everything she does therefore reminds her of them, and of her losses. Meanwhile, her partner (it's an SF galactic buddy-cop kind of series) has his own issues with the holiday and his personal losses, and as he puts it, while he observes it, he no longer celebrates it. Which, in turn, leads to additional angst for them both, as their respective approaches to the holiday conflict: she wants him to participate in her celebration, he wants to be left alone to grieve his own losses.

So there are actually three different levels of angst over the holiday, between the two protagonists. And all of that is secondary to the main conflict of the book, which is that there is a mole in the agency, but many of the agents think that mole is the female protagonist.

This all seems to end up causing the reader to seriously empathize with the characters, who have thereby become very human, very real people, to opposed to cardboard characters.

Kessie Carroll: I've written exactly one Christmas story, and it was about reconciliation and healing. I had a reader tell me that it was a wonderful picture of grace. I went for the feels, man. All about the feels.

Tom Groh: A conflict which the reader can identify with which is at odds with the overall *spirit of the season... conflict makes story.

Mary Ann Back: I'd have to agree. A story in which a troubled soul finds truth of some sort in the meaning of the season.

Susan Staneslow Olesen: Egads. The Christmas stories that come through the library make me want to retch. I prefer the Die Hard type -- a regular story that takes place at Christmas. I prefer the Christmas stories of James Herriot. Those ghastly, saccharine, diabetes-inducing "inspirational" Xmas romances make me want to scream. I just want a good story, not Lifetime Channel milk of magnesia. "Accidental" stories that take place during the holidays are far more realistic and inspirational than forced tripe.

Davide Mana: A good holiday story, to me, has to check two different boxes.

First check, it has to acknowledge the shared narrative of the holiday -- like, Thanksgiving/family reunions, Christmas/good will etc. While the common elements of the narrative must be there, they do not necessarily have to be front stage (Die Hard is a good example: John McClane is meeting his wife for the holidays, possibly to try and find a way to solve their differences, hence the good will etc.; in a different genre, in Trains Planes, Automobiles, the main character wants to get home and be with his family.) We've all been there, we all can relate, or at least we know that's what's supposed to be. The status quo.

The second check, the story must subvert or flip somehow the shared narrative, introducing an extraneous element (John McClane is on a goodwill mission to bury the hatchet with his lady, instead he gets a building full of terrorists; Steve Martin in Trains Planes Automobiles is lost, away from home, and saddled with a guy he can't stand, and the clock is ticking). The status quo is questioned, menaced, or just plain ignored.

The trick at this point is weaving the two elements together so that thy play against the other. The story pulls us in because we know what's expected of the season's festivities, and then our expectation is subverted, the goal is no longer the original goal. The traditional narrative can be completely derailed (in Die Hard, we end with John's wife punching a guy in the face - not much in terms of goodwill), or reinforced by the ending (in Trains etc, family is extended, people share the holiday). Both choices run the risk of either resulting cheesy or contrived, or too cynical.

But if the storyteller knows how to play his cards, we'll get hooked, and we'll end up associating that particular story to that particular celebration, even if there's lots of explosions, people killed and not a Santa Claus in sight.

Perry Constantine: Nothing. Holiday stories suck.

Tobias Christopher: I like my holiday stories with a twist. Like writing a Dragonball Z parody, only the search is for the 7 magic orbs that can summon Santa for one Christmas wish. The usual holiday clichés are fine, but you have to have fun with them or turn them on their ear.

Erwin K. Roberts: A good story may be built around the Christmas season without really being about Christmas. Case in point Hal Goodwin's The Egyptian Cat Mystery, one of the Rick Brant Science-Adventure series.

Rick and Scotty, who are high school students, go to Egypt on their holiday break to help troubleshoot a new radio-telescope with weird problems. They get into all kinds of trouble. The mystery partly revolves around the question, "Do Egyptian Post Men work extra hard around Christmas?"

Fine story, but only partly related to any holiday. On the other hand, the film Die Hard is heavily related to Christmas Celebrations. Certainly more so than some of the so-called X-mas songs like the one about a guy who gets dumped by his girl on December 26th. Or the guy who runs into his former love on 12-24, but could just as easily be New Years Day, or Labor Day, etc.

I'm not too likely to try a holiday-themed story without having an idea that could only happen on, or around, that specific part of the calendar.

C.E. Martin: I think Robert has the right idea... to be a holiday story, it needs to be a story that couldn't be told without the holiday -- that is, the holiday, or something commonly associated with it, is central to the theme.

Alex Andrew: It would be, in my opinion, a story about characters who are opposite any other time, but they come together in a way that wasn't before, and may not come again, the holidays make it so.

Nancy Hansen:  I had a holiday story in the December 2011 issue of Pro Se Presents. In Of Saints and Angels, I went with a tale about a notorious road agent in a pseudo-1700s setting who returns to her roots to spread a bit of holiday cheer while dodging the men hunting her down. What makes it work is the sentiment of the holiday became an integral part of the mix. The title tips you off that something reverent is included, though it's a pun of sorts based on character names and nicknames. While there's enough action included to please the pulp fans, it also has that rather heartwarming feel that you expect of a holiday story, as you get the see the whys and wherefores behind what lead the main character into the outlaw life she now embraces. The holiday is the backdrop, and that kind of end-of-year reminiscing and catching-up people do is a big part of the tale.

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