Great Stories: Frasier

Originally I had planned on exploring stories from different mediums from week to week rather than discussing TV shows two entries in a row, but since John Mahoney just passed away, it’s a good reason to write about the show that made up so much of his career.

Now, in my last post I praised The Good Place for taking serialized television to new, exciting extremes. Frasier, in contrast, is largely episodic, and it contains many other features of traditional sitcoms — a studio audience, generally predictable plot structures, and characters and situations that remain mostly static from one episode to the next (though there was naturally some change and development over the course of eleven seasons). Having said all that, the show manages to provide plenty of excellent and entertaining television within those confines. There’s nothing inherently inferior about episodic TV; it’s just a different kind of storytelling.

Let’s look at what makes the show stand out from the average sitcom of its era. There are a few subtle ways the showrunners tweaked the conventions. For example, they replaced the usual “song with opening credits” with a brief instrumental title sequence — common nowadays, but very rare in 90s TV. Instead, the theme song “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs” plays over the closing credits along with a wordless final scene, usually the visual punchline of something established earlier. And rather than establishing shots, each scene begins with a title card of a cryptic word or phrase that makes sense once you’ve watched the subsequent scene. It rewards the viewers for paying attention, which is always a nice feeling as an audience member.

Going beyond the more superficial innovations, Frasier is noteworthy primarily for its memorable characters and their dynamic interplay. It’s easy to forget that it began as a spin-off of Cheers, the 80s sitcom set in a bar in Boston — a well-made show in its own right (which coincidentally launched the career of Ted Danson, who happens to play Michael on The Good Place), but with a very different set of characters and situations. They took Frasier Crane, Kelsey Grammer’s snooty psychiatrist who was the oddball among the blue-collar type figures population the bar in Cheers, and re-centered him as the main character of his own show. Then they created a brother for him, Niles, who was somehow even more Frasier-ish than Frasier himself. A show with two elitist snobs as the main characters? Would that even be watchable?

But it works, and here’s why. First off, the show pokes gentle fun at the Crane boys’ snobbery, portraying them as humorously flawed but still sympathetic.  There is also a delightful exploration of their endless sibling rivalry (highlights include the episodes “Author, Author” and “IQ”). Secondly, the rest of the main characters provide a counterpoint to the elitist side of things. Their father, Martin, is a former policeman, forced to retire after being injured while stopping a robbery. His live-in physical therapist, Daphne Moon, is a sweet but spacey working-class girl from England, and Frasier’s radio show is produced by Roz Doyle, a no-nonsense type who’s always ready to respond to Frasier’s pomposity with an eye-roll and a sarcastic quip.

There are TV shows that explore the dynamics of class and wealth, but few of them explore it within the same family. The ongoing clash between Martin and his sons is a fascinating dynamic. He married a psychiatrist, and both his sons followed in her footsteps, with little understanding or patience for the background and culture Martin has come from. There is both humor and pathos in their struggles to get along with one another.  One of the changes that does take place over the course of the show is a gentle softening of the tension in their relationships. In first season, they’re barely speaking to each other. Frasier reluctantly asks his father to move in with him because Martin’s injury has made it unsafe for him to live alone, but he’s deeply resentful of the intrusion on his space, perfectly symbolized by Martin’s ratty old chair sitting amid Frasier’s fancy furniture. But by the end of the show, when Martin is moving on to his own place, Frasier finds that his home feels all too empty.

The other noteworthy arc that spans multiple seasons is the story of Niles’s infatuation with Daphne. There was no long-term plan for this from the beginning; it was simply a gag that Niles (played to perfection by David Hyde Pierce) develops an instantaneous crush on his father’s physical therapist while she remains blissfully unaware of it. But as the show goes on, and Niles finally gets out of a miserable marriage with the controlling, eccentric (and never seen on-screen) Maris, the story unfolds in such a way that it’s quite believable for Niles and Daphne to become a happy couple. What I appreciate most about their romance is how the writers explore the aftermath realistically. It’s not all smooth sailing just because they’ve gotten together. One of my favorite episodes is “Daphne Returns,” which cleverly inserts present-day Frasier and Niles into scenes from old episodes as Frasier tries to show his brother how his unrealistic idealization of Daphne has made her skittish about whether she can ever measure up to his fantasies. With one line he sums it up so well: “You were never in love with her; you were in love at her.” That’s good writing.

It’s not a perfect show, of course. There are far too many fat jokes, particularly when Daphne gains a tremendous amount of weight in a plot-line created to cover up the actress’s pregnancy. The gay-themed gags sometimes come across as rather tasteless, all the more if you know that there were two closeted gay men among the cast. There is also an irritating double standard wherein the men, especially Niles, tease Roz for being promiscuous when they’re hardly the sort to turn down any interested woman themselves.

But all of these are common features of TV from that era, for better or worse. What most TV didn’t have was frequent references to obscure classical music and literature, loads of psychiatry-based puns, and brilliant scenes like this, or this or this. And the perfect catchphrase for being offended, uttered with Kelsey Grammer’s inimitable pomposity:  “I am WOUNDED.” It’s funny; it’s wry and intelligent; it’s heart-warming without being treacly, and it’s eleven seasons worth of great stories.

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Great Stories: The Good Place

Storytelling in television presents some different challenges than in standalone books or movies. Most TV show creators would be happy if their show got picked up for multiple seasons, but they rarely have a storyline planned out that far, at least not in detail. So when a series does get renewed, it can be a mixed blessing in terms of the show’s quality. We get more episodes, but if the writers are starting to run out of fresh ideas, those episodes will decrease in quality, becoming repetitive, predictable and contrived. How can that be avoided?

One partial solution is to eschew the serialized storytelling entirely and focus on self-contained, single-episode stories. This was the case for most TV shows before the Internet/binge-watching era, with each episode presenting a standalone story that had little connection to other episodes aside from shared characters and setting. At the end of the 22 or 44 minute story, the conflicts were resolved and everything was much as it was at the start. And you weren’t required to watch the entire season to understand what was going on. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of storytelling. Most of the celebrated classic TV shows were almost purely episodic, like I Love Lucy, the original Star Trek, or MASH. A well-constructed episode can play out like a mini-movie, complete with exciting twists and a satisfying resolution.

But episodic television is becoming less and less common nowadays. With the ability to watch an entire season all at once, we’ve come to expect that there will be an overarching storyline to follow, even if each episode might have its own mini-story. We expect serialized storytelling. And sometimes, if the showrunners didn’t anticipate their show running as long as it does, they end up having to make up a lot of the story as they go. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee bad stories, but it’s not the most reliable formula for great, or consistent, storytelling.

The point of all of this lead-up is to say that The Good Place is a superb example of serialized TV that gets it right from the very beginning. Granted, the show isn’t over yet, but the first two seasons have given us every assurance that the writers know exactly where the story is headed, and they have a plan to get there.

This is exciting for any show, but particularly for a comedy. Long, complicated arcs are usually reserved for dramas. Sitcoms got their name for a reason — a situation is established, and comedy ensues within its constraints. Once the initial premise is established, you expect it will stay largely the same, with some small changes as characters embark on romances or perhaps grow just a little bit. The predictability is comforting. Keeping the audience constantly guessing — that’s the stuff of drama, right?

Not for The Good Place. It is definitely a comedy, no doubt about it, but it is also a surreal exploration of morality and philosophy, as well as a sly meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling itself. It toys constantly with the audience’s expectations and pushes the boundaries on every convention we’ve come to expect.

The initial premise is already a step beyond the average workplace or family comedy. Our main protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, learns she has died and entered the afterlife, which is essentially comprised of “The Good Place” and “The Bad Place.” She is relieved when the affable, supernatural being Micheal informs her that she has made it to the former. But just a few scenes later she’s confiding in her “soulmate” that she doesn’t actually belong here, that she didn’t lead the altruistic life Michael believes she did, and there’s been a terrible mistake.

Okay, pretty weird, but we can work with this. We’ll follow Eleanor as she tries to hide her secret from Michael and this community of do-gooders, and hilarity will ensue, right? Sure…except that each new episode brings a fresh twist to complicate the premise. Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, something else changes. Until the end of season 1, which brings a revelation that fundamentally alters the trajectory of the show.

And season 2 follows that new trajectory for all of two episodes before bringing in a completely new complication! Obviously I’m keeping it vague so as not to spoil it. Now, as previously discussed, I’m leery of stories that keeping throwing in new twists. They can feel gimmicky, as if the writers worry no one will keep watching without constantly hooking viewers in with some fresh mystery. But then the answer to the mystery is inevitably a letdown. Not so with The Good Place. The revelations bear up under re-watches, so you realize the writers knew what was coming even though we didn’t. The showrunner, Michael Schur, has had the long view from the beginning.

Meanwhile, twists or not, each episode is so much fun. We learn more about the other central characters — the “soulmate,” Chidi, an ethics professor who reluctantly agrees to help Eleanor try to become a better person so she won’t get discovered. (With his stomach-aches over moral quandaries, he’s definitely the character I relate to the most). And Tahani, the philanthropic socialite who seemed to know every famous person on Earth while she was alive (and makes sure you know it, namedropping left and right). Her soulmate, the silent monk Jianyu who might have ulterior motives for staying silent. Janet, the helpful AI construct who cheerfully reminds characters that she is “not a robot” and “not a girl.” And Michael himself, who quickly moves beyond the perpetually-beaming caricature he appears to be at first. It hardly seems a coincidence that he shares a name with the showrunner. Like the creator of a TV show, he too is running scenarios designed to create a certain effect…with varying degrees of success. All the actors are giving top-notch performances, and it’s a treat to watch them play off each other. It’s refreshing as well to see a multicultural cast with nary a caricatured racial-stereotype (in spite of what you might initially think about Jianyu).

It’s also, thanks to Chidi’s ethics lessons, a sort of crash course in moral philosophy. How many other comedies contain regular references to Plato, Kierkegaard, and Kant? How often do you get a glorious assortment of goofy puns and visual gags alongside an in-depth exploration of moral improvement and what it means to be human? It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but somehow they pull it off.

I’m well aware that after all this praise, I could be in for a big disappointment if the subsequent seasons don’t pay off their promises the way the first two have. But I’m fairly confident they will, for a few reasons. First of all, the showrunner has proven himself highly capable of creating clever and well-constructed TV shows before with The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Second, he has made it clear that he started this show with a deliberate plan for where it was ultimately headed. He’s made the rather unusual request of shorter seasons, only twelve or thirteen episodes, to keep the story from getting bloated with unnecessary padding. He doesn’t seem inclined to make more episodes just to keep the story stretching on and on — when it reaches its natural conclusion, it will end. I will actually be quite happy if the series finishes after four seasons, as long as that’s where it was intended to finish. I’ve seen too many TV shows get weaker and weaker as they go on past when they should have ended. This is perhaps a rare opinion, but I’d rather a show stop while it’s still popular — because it’s still high-quality.

Like Chidi, I’ve just used a lot of words to say what is essentially a very simple concept, so I’ll sum it up more succinctly. The Good Place is great TV. Watch it!

Great Stories: Groundhog Day

Since February 2nd is coming up this Friday, I thought it would be fun to write this week’s entry about the Harold Ramis/Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. This is one of those few well-crafted stories that strike almost the perfect balance between heart-warming and hilarious. How do they pull it off?

Any story that involves a time loop is going to need some clever twists and careful pacing, or it’s going to get boring very quickly. In the case of this film, while the events and setting remain essentially the same, the main character undergoes some dramatic changes, so the narrative has a very clear direction. You could divide the movie into discrete sections according to Phil’s character development. First there is the exposition segment taking place day before, which establishes his egotistical and selfish nature and his sour attitude toward Groundhog Day and Punxatawney in general. Once the time loop begins, he has an initial period of frantic confusion, followed by a hedonistic spree as he embraces a life with no consequences. This segues naturally into a period of one-night stands, but once he starts trying to pursue his producer, Rita, he is forced to realize that he can’t trick his way into a genuine relationship. Then he hits a low point, leading to a darkly comedic sequence of fruitless suicides. The turning point occurs when he confides in Rita, telling her everything even though she won’t remember it the next (same) day. Her optimism inspires him to make better use of this strange curse/gift he’s stuck with, and from them on it’s an upward trajectory of self-improvement and serving others until the last February 2nd, a day lived so well that he finally makes it to February 3rd.

It’s a very effective structure, and it keeps us engaged and excited to see what comes next even though each day is by nature the same. That’s the big picture. But it’s the details as well that make this such an entertaining, well-told story. The repetition of little things happens just enough until we almost can’t stand it anymore, and then a change get thrown in. For example, the clock continues to click from 5:59 to 6:00, playing the same section of “I’ve Got You Babe” over and over…until one morning when the music cuts instead straight to “Pennsylvania Polka” — not on the radio, but as a shortcut from this scene to the scene at Gobbler’s Knob that we’ve come to associate with that polka. And though we know that Phil has to make his report about the groundhog every day, we don’t have to see it every time — and each time we do see, it’s different, showcasing the shifting stages of his character development. Once the nature of the time loop is established, we get the idea. We can skip to different parts of the day, on different versions of the day, without getting confused.

Let’s also note that while the movie has a great message, it doesn’t overdo it. We don’t have to know why this happened to Phil (early drafts of the script contained an explanation, but it was rightfully discarded as unnecessary) and we don’t need an explicit explanation for why the curse is finally broken. It’s exploring a very simple question beneath the supernatural aspects — what would you do with unlimited time, in a world with no future? What would bring you the most happiness and lasting satisfaction? Phil doesn’t know that his good behavior will end the time loop. He’s just looking for a way to not be miserable. And it’s when he stops aggressively pursuing Rita and becomes a better man that she starts to become genuinely interested in him. Ulterior motives don’t get him anywhere. He has to stop being selfish, not just to break the curse, but to find happiness even when he’s trapped, whether by snowstorm or time loop, in a town full of “hicks” for a goofy tradition involving a rodent.

Finally, this movie is so, so funny. If I tried to quote all the funny lines I’d end up including most of the film. “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today!” And the sight gags, like Phil strolling up to take a bag of money from the bank truck with perfect timing….the constant replays of his date with Rita as he tries to adjust his calculated wooing of her, always failing in the end….and of course that dreaded clock, turning over and over to 6:00.

I’ve seen a few other renditions of “character gets trapped in the same day,” but none of them have been done so well, so cleverly, in such a comical yet meaningful way, as Groundhog Day. I look forward to watching it every February 2nd.

Great Stories: The Westmark Trilogy

I’ve already spoken of my love for Lloyd Alexander’s writing, starting with my discovery of the Chronicles of Prydain. I could easily gush about any one of his fantasy novels and his knack for evoking vast realms of history and mythology with just a few well-chosen phrases. One of my favorite works of his, however, is a rare example of non-fantasy. It takes place in an entirely fictitious setting (a European-ish country in an 1800-ish time period) but there is no magic, no mystical happenings, none of the usual trappings of fantasy. The Westmark Trilogy is, instead, a fascinating exploration of humanity, ethics and politics in a place that never was, but easily could have been.

The hero is Theo, an idealistic young printer’s devil (a sort of sub-apprentice, but the double meaning is surely not coincidental) who inadvertently finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The country of Westmark is currently under the tyrannical rule of Cabbarus, a cruel and controlling royal advisor who has essentially taken control while the king is overcome with grief at the death of his daughter. At the start of the story Theo has a great many convictions about what is right and wrong, and he believes that most people share his views. The first book explores how he must come to terms with a more realistic perspective.  He meets Las Bombas, whose dishonest schemes send Theo into a tangle of ethical quandaries, and yet he cannot help liking the man for his charming and secretly caring personality. There is Mickle, a street urchin who is purely pragmatic after years of having to fend for herself, who has little patience for Theo’s moral qualms…so of course they end up falling hard for each other. And then there is the band of student revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian, not content with ousting Cabbarus from power, but determined to bring down the entire monarchy. After many a debate with Florian, Theo finds himself less and less sure of what his ideals are anymore. One truth remains unshaken for him — killing is wrong. Because of this, he makes a choice at the end of Westmark that will have far-reaching consequences, for good or ill, throughout the rest of the trilogy.

The second book, The Kestrel, plunges the country into war with the neighboring land of Regia. Theo notes all the soldiers willing to give their lives and decides the only moral thing to do is join the fight as well. But he quickly learns that there is little of nobility or honor in warfare, and eventually succumbs to his darkest violent impulses. It was hard enough for him to realize that not all people are as good as he believes they should be; now he must acknowledge that he himself is just as prone to fall into vicious cruelty as anyone else. The war ends, but the battle within himself still rages.

Theo is not the same man in The Beggar Queen, and yet he still carries a yearning for justice and honor in spite of it all. Westmark falls once more under tyranny, and Theo and Mickle must join forces with Florian’s revolutionaries to establish freedom. Revolutions never come cheap, however. The trilogy’s resolution is both heartbreaking and deeply satisfying. I’ve read all three books again and again with fresh enjoyment every time.

They cover some intense topics, considering that Lloyd Alexander is usually classified as a children’s author. These lean more into young adult territory in their themes and content, but they are also comparatively short, tersely written and never gratuitously graphic. Apparently he felt compelled to come to terms with his own unpleasant experiences during World War II. Perhaps the writing process provided a sort of exorcism of his demons. But not in a relentlessly ugly or nihilistic manner — there is warmth and compassion for all of the characters, even at their darkest. I think a mature eleven- or twelve-year-old could read and appreciate these books. They explore the dark side of humanity, yes, but also with a glimmer of hope that never quite dies out. Alexander never talks down to his audience, and he doesn’t belabor his points or waste time on unnecessary padding. If you’d like an exploration of what it means to be a good person, how to reconcile abstract ethics with the messy inconsistent realities of human behavior, the morals of politics and warfare and revolution — well, maybe you could try Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  But if 1465 pages seem a little much, read the Westmark Trilogy instead. And if you have read Les Miserables, read the Westmark Trilogy too.

Great Stories: It’s a Wonderful Life

I’m going to continue with the Christmas theme for just one more week, with another very popular story we tend to associate with the season (even though its Christmas setting is rather tangential to the story). Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life had a rather peculiar trajectory to achieving its current iconic status, from mixed reviews upon its initial release, to relative obscurity for decades, to a sudden revived interest when its lapsed copyright led to repeated airings on television in the 1980s. It’s been criticized of everything from Communist sympathies (because of its negative portrayal of the banking baron Mr. Potter) to unrealistic sentimentality to, on the other hand, bleak nihilism. Sheesh.

I love it, meanwhile. It’s the tale of a man who hits rock bottom, who is then offered a new perspective on his life (by supernatural means), and moves forward with renewed hope and appreciation. In this regard it’s very much like A Christmas Carol, but instead of a bitter misanthrope who needs to learn how to live his life better, it’s a dreamer who has given so much of his life to others, often at the expense of his own dreams. Rather than seeing where his life went wrong, he needs to see the true worth of all the sacrifices he’s made, and the joy he has brought to so many people. Like Dickens’s classic tale, the basic idea has been parodied in many mediums. There is something so evocative about a person viewing a world where they never existed, and thus realizing how much life is worth living.

The movie was based on a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” though the details of the protagonist’s life were expanded greatly beyond the original story. In a rather rare storytelling structure, the bulk of the film is exposition, a prolonged flashback within the frame story of a guardian angel learning about George Bailey, the man he has been assigned to save. This works primarily because each of the incidents within the flashback are miniature stories in their own right — George saving his little brother from drowning, or rescuing the pharmacist from drunkenly sending out poisoned medicine, or falling in love with Mary, or stepping in to save his father’s business instead of going to college.

We quickly recognize what sort of person George is. He has big aspirations for himself, but when it comes to a crisis, he will inevitably make the selfless choice. He has permanent hearing loss from saving his brother. He never gets to travel. He never works anywhere except the struggling Building and Loan. He doesn’t even get to go on his honeymoon. And this is generally where the nihilism argument comes along. What a bleak life, full of broken dreams and crushed hopes. George spends his life always settling for less, setting aside what he wants in favor of everyone else’s needs.

And it’s true that there is an inherent darkness in the story of a man who is seriously contemplating suicide. However, while George has periodic episodes of resentment and bitterness throughout the film, he’s generally a very upbeat, exuberant man. If you’re at all familiar with Frank Capra’s filmography, you’ll know that he doesn’t make relentlessly bleak movies. One of the reasons I enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life is because it’s so fun. There’s the scene when George and Mary dance backwards into a pool; there’s the happy rapport George has with just about every townsperson in Bedford Falls; there’s the glee at his war-hero brother’s homecoming without any trace of envy, even though his bad ear prevented George from serving in the war himself. George is not a generally sad person. He’s cheerful right up until the moment of crisis, when $8000 goes missing.

Of course, I don’t think it’s just the missing money that sends George to the brink. In moments of extreme fear and tension like this, it’s only natural for every old resentment to spring up. He sees a future of ruin, disgrace, possible imprisonment; and wonders if it was inevitable, if his whole life has been a slow-moving trainwreck leading up to this point. Potter puts the blunt, coldhearted thought into words — “You’re worth more dead than alive” but he’s only voicing what George’s darkest self has already been thinking.

The bleak tone of this suicidal moment is counterbalanced by the whimsical appearance of Clarence, a sort of angel-in-training. I suppose this why the film has its detractors from both angles — too dark, too lighthearted. Well, the balance works for me. We need a little humor and whimsy at this point in the tale. And how fitting that Clarence rescues George from the immediate crisis at the bridge by jumping into the water himself — knowing, as always, that George will make the selfless choice. (Indeed, in George’s distressed state, he might have briefly convinced himself that ending his life is the selfless choice for the well-being of others.) But it wasn’t enough merely to prevent George from drowning himself. He’s still in a dark place. Maybe he doesn’t really want to be dead, but maybe it would be better if he’d never been born.

So Clarence shows him. Oh, this part can be a little melodramatic. Pottersville is a nightmarish landscape, like something out of the Twilight Zone or the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek. It does seem a bit of a stretch to imagine that one man could single-handedly prevent all of this. But that’s not really the issue, because for George, the most unsettling thing is finding himself a stranger among his home and loved ones. Nobody recognizes him. His familiar home is empty and abandoned. His wife screams when he tries to embrace her. And their children don’t even exist. Even if nothing else had changed about Bedford Falls, this alone might be enough for George to regain an appreciation for his life, to beg for the chance to live again.

What’s really remarkable about his return is that he’s back to his gleeful, exuberant, upbeat self even before the $8000 issue has been resolved. “Isn’t it wonderful; I’m going to jail!” he exclaims, because he’s reunited with his wife and children, they know him, and nothing can shake his happiness. Of course it’s all the more rewarding when we get to witness the outpouring of support from his friends and family. Justice in its more traditional sense never happens. No one learns that Potter has the money; he never gets the punishment he deserves. But we see a different kind of justice. After a lifetime of service and giving, George is the recipient of a mountain of generosity.  It’s only natural for everyone to give a little back after he’s given them so much.

When his brother Harry calls him “The richest man in town” at the film’s end, it’s far more than a reference to the enormous pile of cash sitting in front of him. George will never be wealthy in the worldly sense. But he is surrounded by the richness of friendship and camaraderie, a town full of people who love him because of the good and caring man he his. Maybe it’s a sentimental story, but so what? It’s a good sentiment.

 

Great Stories: A Christmas Carol

I’ve decided to start a new series for this blog. I’ll be selecting stories that I love and examining what makes them work. In order to be a capable storyteller myself, I want to understand the anatomy of a well-told story. The series will include books, television shows and movies, because a good story is a good story whatever the medium.

Since Christmas was only a few weeks ago, I’m going to start with a classic of the holiday season: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This tale is so well-known it has thoroughly permeated our pop culture. Scrooge has become a part of our vocabulary, evoking images of miserly misanthropes. The plotline has been parodied in many a Christmas-themed episode or movie, and everyone can quote Tiny Tim’s catchphrase, “God bless us, every one!”

Why does it work? Setting the story during Christmastime probably helps. As the Hallmark Channel would happily attest, having a Christmas backdrop can bring in an eager audience for even the weakest of stories. But I’m sure it’s more than that. It’s more than a story about a man who learns to love Christmas. It’s also more than a ghost story, though Dickens certainly has a knack for creating a spooky atmosphere (it could be argued that his phantom-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a precursor of such robed and faceless figures as ringwraiths and dementors). At its heart, it is about a man who changes — a miserable, bitter, nasty old man who learns to be kind, joyous and giving. And there is the implicit promise that any and all of us are capable of such change as well.

Let’s take a look at the structure of the story, which is one of its strongest points. Dickens has written much longer and much more meandering novels. But A Christmas Carol is tightly composed, seldom straying from its purpose, and it’s quite satisfying to see how the story plays out. Each chapter or “stave” is associated with a ghost, with the exception of the final stave, “The End of It.” First comes Marley’s Ghost, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. And each ghost is the catalyst for an important stage in Scrooge’s journey to changing his character. But first Dickens must establish how Scrooge’s character is at the start. He accomplishes this quite efficiently by showing how Scrooge treats those around him — his clerk, his nephew and some men asking for charitable donations. To each he is curt, harsh and unsympathetic. Some of his responses are downright appalling. Any fool who proclaims Merry Christmas, Scrooge declares, should be “boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his heart!” And those who won’t be put in debtor’s prison or the workhouses had better die, “and decrease the surplus population!”

The ghosts certainly have their work cut out for them. At the very start of the book, the narrator says he must emphasize that Marley was dead, or else nothing thereafter will seem wondrous. But I would argue it’s the emphasis of Scrooge’s unrepentant misanthropy that makes the tale truly wondrous. To see just how awful he is at the beginning makes his transformation that much more meaningful.

It will not be an easy transformation. When Marley’s ghost appears to warn Scrooge of what awaits him upon death, Scrooge is appropriately horrified, but that’s not enough to make him mend his ways. For starters, he’s still not convinced it’s anything but a dream. Beyond that, he doesn’t know how to change. He’s made a habit of his selfish behaviors over the years, and he can’t just switch them off. Fear of a dreadful afterlife is not enough to fix his problem. He needs direction.

So the ghost of Christmas past arrives and shows him his childhood. Why? The first scenes that Scrooge witnesses are not happy ones. He is forced to recall all the lonely Christmases he spent at school, away from home. Well, I believe that part of the reason Scrooge became so cold was as a means to protect himself from further pain. And if he wants to start feeling anything again, he must first acknowledge that pain. To soften his heart, it must first be broken.

Once he starts to open himself to tender emotions again, particularly upon recollection of his long-dead sister, Scrooge is ready for a happier memory — the party at Fezziwig’s. If this was the first memory he was shown, he might have been indifferent to it. Now that he’s melted some, he’s delighted. And for the first time in ages, he measures the worth of something not by how much it cost, but by how much joy it brought to others.

More heartbreak must come, however. Pretty much every adaptation of A Christmas Carol includes the scene wherein Belle breaks off their engagement, but very few include the following scene from the book, which shows her happily married to someone else, surrounded by loving children. Scrooge must confront this reality, and recognize what he lost when he devoted his life to the pursuit of money.

Then the Ghost of Christmas Present comes, and what a jovial figure he is. Showing Scrooge countless scenes of Christmas merriment (again, most adaptations are limited to just the Cratchit home and Scrooge’s nephew’s party, but there’s so much more in the book) and sprinkling his happy seasoning everywhere. And yet it is this ghost who has some of the most cutting lines in the book — sarcastically quoting Scrooge’s own words to show them how harsh they truly were. When Scrooge is shocked to learn that Tiny Tim will not survive another year unless his family’s situation changes dramatically, the Ghost echoes the disdainful line about “decreasing the surplus population.” And in a truly chilling moment when the Ghost reveals the ragged children under his robe who represent Ignorance and Want, and Scrooge wonders if there is nothing to be done for them, the Ghost repeats “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The contrast between Christmas cheer and kindness and the darkest instincts of humanity is made painfully clear to Scrooge.

Then the final Ghost arrives. Wordless, faceless, pointing one bony figure to communicate its unsettling message. Someone has died, and no one cares — no one except some thieves who profit from what he left behind, and some of his debtors who are painfully relieved to have their debt transferred to someone kinder. Scrooge must know the dead one is himself, but he can’t face it until he’s directly confronted with his tombstone. The fear is not merely that he must die some day. The fear is that he will die utterly unloved and unmissed — that a penniless child like Tiny Tim brought more happiness to others in his brief life than Scrooge ever did in all his years.

After all this — a better understanding of his past, a view of what Christmastime can mean at its best, and a grim view of what he most wants to avoid — Scrooge is finally ready. “I am not the man I was” he exclaims at his own graveside, and what a wonderful summation of his change. What a wonderful contrast we see when he wakes, finds that it’s not too late, and begins his new life. He laughs and prances about like a child; he is kind to everyone he meets; he follows through on all his promises of generosity and goodness. Does he win back his lost love? No, he can’t rewrite the past. He must accept what he lost of his own free will. But he can create a far better future. It’s never, never too late to change.

If this tale were told in a more cloying manner, it might be hard to stomach. And it’s not a perfect story. Tiny Tim is the very stereotype of the patient, angelic disabled child. There are other things I could nitpick. Still, Dickens employs wit and detailed imagery to create an engrossing, entertaining story that continues to resonant over a hundred years later. I read it every Christmas Eve, and I haven’t gotten bored of it yet.

Blog Post: Based on a completely and totally untrue story!

There’s a particular storytelling trope that really gets on my nerves as a writer, and I wanted to explore what bothers me so much about it. It usually shows up in TV episodes and movies, which are presumably written by writers, and yet it demonstrates such a fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process.

It usually goes something like this: there’s a new book that has become fantabulously successful, earning the writer fame and fortune and acclaim for their ability to come up with such an incredibly creative, original story. But the the truth comes out — the writer didn’t make it up at all! It actually happened, in real life, to their friend/co-worker/childhood acquaintance!! Oh, the scandal, the outrage! The writer is a complete phony and hasn’t a creative bone in their entire body!

Sheesh.

This is nonsense. Coming up with ideas is just one fraction of what a writer does. It might even be the easiest part. That’s not to say that’s okay to use someone else’s ideas or someone else’s life experiences without permission and without giving credit. Of course a writer who doesn’t acknowledge their sources would be unethical. But that kind of thing rarely happens (in fact, it’s far more likely that the writer of some shocking “non-fiction” memoir is revealed to have fabricated much of their supposedly true story). Because guess what? Real life experiences, as I’ve said many times before, do not automatically make good stories. Not without some careful crafting to make them into a readable narrative. And that is where a writer’s primary skill lies. Not in coming up with ideas, but in transforming those ideas into good stories. Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction (and yes, obviously, if you’re writing non-fiction, it’s dishonest to market it as fiction), its success will depend almost entirely on how well it’s written.

When people claim that there aren’t really any new stories, that might sound depressing. But all it really means is that so much of human experience is universal, that the same sort of stories keep appealing to us over and over. It’s not a writer’s job to come up with something completely and entirely new — it’s their job to take something familiar and make it new all over again. Was Harry Potter the first story about a secret magical world and a boy gaining the power to defeat his parents’ nemesis? Of course not! Pointing out its similarities to previous fantasy stories doesn’t prove that it’s weak or unoriginal. Take a look at how the story is told, and you’ll see why it was so successful. On the other hand, you could find plenty of stories with clever premises that just weren’t told very well, so all the cleverness in the world couldn’t save them.

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? Well, from a legal standpoint, our modern copyright laws didn’t exist. He wasn’t doing anything that plenty of other writers weren’t also doing. (I am not suggesting we get rid of copyright laws. They protect the very real work that writers put into crafting stories, and prevent others from stealing credit and money.) But sure, he didn’t come up with every plotline entirely from his own head. Was he unoriginal? Lacking creativity? Hardly. The way he told stories, familiar though they may have been, was so inventive, interwoven with humor and philosophical discourse and witty wordplay, that he made the stories new again — to the point that most modern audiences assume he must have come up with those stories himself!

So is the ability to come up with original ideas irrelevant for a good writer? No, not at all. Innovative premises are vital to keeping things fresh. But they are only ever a beginning. Coming up with the idea for a book is the first step. Then you have to actually write it, and hopefully write it well. After that, as long as you’ve given credit to any sources of inspiration, any fame and fortune and acclaim that you receive has been justly earned.