Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Holidays

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States, and only a few days past Canada Day. Holidays are great opportunities to get some much-needed R & R or to spend time with our families, but I’d never really considered them as fertile ground for story until I attended a conference class on script writing.

Although the presenter at the conference had written scripts for Hollywood, script-writing was not the limit of her experience. She pointed out that holidays can add an important dynamic to a script, novel or play and can increase the story's longevity. For treatments in which the holiday is the backbone, the story cannot stand without it. Think "It's a Wonderful Life," Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," or "Holiday Inn" (which spun off 2 others: White Christmas & Easter Parade). We watch/read these and others like them every year which makes them lucrative. For many people, they become family traditions. Ray Bradbury's novel, "The Halloween Tree," is one such novel that follows a group of boys as they race through time to save a friend, all the while learning about the origins of the observance. Without Halloween, there is no story. Many popular authors write Christmas or Valentine's Day novels or novellas because they sell so well and make great gifts.

The presenter also challenged us to think of other stories that perhaps weren't so obviously about the holiday, but would be greatly impacted by its exclusion. "While You Were Sleeping" with Sandra Bullock was one of these. Setting the story around Christmas and New Years makes us sympathetic to the main character's loneliness and lends credibility to her motives. We especially want her to get both the guy AND his family because her loneliness is magnified by the holiday season. But the story is not so steeped in the holiday that you need to wait for Christmas to watch again.

Sometimes, rather than setting the story on a holiday, it's enough to include the holiday in a scene to show, for example, relational dynamics, the passage of time or a character's motives. In "Catch Me if You Can", Frank Abagnale calls Tom Hanks' FBI character on the phone on certain holidays which provides Hanks with some of the information he needs to finally catch him. (BTW, here is a very interesting disclaimer by Mr. Abagnale about the book and movie here.) There is also a pivotal scene in Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist" set at Thanksgiving dinner which gives a revealing look into their family's dysfunction and manipulation. The Christmas scene in "Little Women" gives us a taste of Christmas during the Civil War and insight into the character of the young women. I included scenes involving the family at the holidays in "Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon" because holidays are highly significant and challenging after the the death of a loved one.

Have you incorporated any holidays in your writings, and what was the purpose? Can you add any books/movies/plays to the list and why do you think the holiday was included in them?


Anonymous said...

My husband and I are big "Home Improvement" fans (the tv show based on Tim the-tool-man Taylor and his family/friends). This isn't a movie/book/play per-se BUT, I think it still qualifies in this conversation. A great deal of the H.I. episodes are built into holidays...I think the reasoning for this was to make it more real to the audience (the shows originally would have aired during the same season represented in each show); but also to make them relatable...often the dilemmas the characters found themselves in during these holiday episodes were the very dilemmas we each face (dealing with in-laws at the holidays, getting too wrapped up in pageants, baking and eating with family, giving thanks together, and scaring each other silly at Halloween)...and also the traditions which just made us feel more "at home" with the show. Because it was a helped us laugh at the silly things our families do at these times. Honestly, some of my favorite episodes are the holiday ones...especially the Christmas episodes when Tim enters the Christmas lighting contest in his neighborhood and hilarity ensues. I just get warm fuzzies watching a fictional family living and laughing through special holiday times together...just as I have in my own's just enjoyable...
Yes..."warm fuzzies" I think sums up my reasoning for enjoying these holiday stories so much!
I never really thought about it much before Debbie...thanks so much for the insight!

Meg Moseley said...

I agree. The relatability (is that a word?) of the holidays can add a lot to a story, whether or not our own holiday traditions are similar to the ones in the story.

A holiday's theme can add depth to a story too. When I was putting the scenes of "When Sparrows Fall" on a calendar, I realized the Big Black Moment of the story could take place over Easter weekend, starting on Good Friday, and the story could end on Easter morning. Death and Resurrection. I couldn't have planned it that way. I still get goosebumps when I think about it.

Sara said...

My WIP is actually a fantasy novel, which makes for some interesting challenges. (Fantasy author Patricia Wrede writes about that here:

On the one hand, with world-building, holidays universal and you *ought* to have them. But it's easy to look like you're trying too hard when inventing new holidays, or to look like you're unimaginative by just taking Christmas and Thanksgiving and giving them new names and slapping them down in a swords-and-sorcery novel. And because our real holidays have such emotional resonance (they're supposed to feel familiar), having an invented holiday that people definitionally aren't familiar with can actually make the world feel less real. It's an interesting set of quesstions.

Nicole said...

I've included Christmas twice in two of my novels. For the relationship factor and in one for organically revealing the Gospel.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Sara, me too! Thanks for the Wrede link.
I have had fun retooling sacraments. Marriage is a bath in which everyone dumps water on the couple, cold for him and warm for her.
Anniversaries are celebrated with re-enactments. But I must agree that I have neglected the high points of the ecclesiastical calendar. Would people on the back side of the universe do a High King's Birthday? If it doesn't move the plot forward I think I'd rather leave it assumed. I'll be thinking of this for while!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

It's an interesting concept to create new holidays for fantasy or sci fi. I agree that there would need to be some point of commonality to keep the reader engaged. It sounds challenging and fun.

If a plot naturally weaves through a Christian holiday, it could give insight into the character's spiritual growth, as long as it didn't seem contrived. That happened with "Tuesday Night" because my young character was questioning her relationship with God. The symbolism makes it easier to do.

One thing I must mention is that a story written exclusively around a holiday can be limiting for sales for a first-time author. It is more lucrative for authors who have an established reader-base. (That's solely my opinion and I don't have sales figures to back it up. Does anyone know?)

Anonymous said...

I used to write holiday plays for my church. Christmas and Easter. One was about a group of people stranded in a Upper Peninsula airport (it was funny for Michiganders). Another set in Texas with a converted New York Jew. Yet another was set in the Depression (that one was was my first).

It's fun!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Susie, your plays sound like fun. I'm glad you found that market for seasonal plays. Have you ever sold any of them?

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I've just dealt with Christmas in my WIP. Kind of glided over it, really. Mostly because that's where my characters were up to in the calendar and I couldn't just ignore it - but it also became a useful lens to magnify a central conflict between my protag and her partner. I won't be dealing with it often, though, because my book is one of those sagas that spans LOTS of years, and there's only so much turkey and pudding one MS can take. ;)

Anonymous said...

Debbie, I sold the one set in Texas.

I need to add - the benefit of writing church plays is that you get to pick the character you'd like to play. :)