A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – a masterclass in structure #amwriting

Another Christmas has joined the Ghosts of Christmas Past—today is Boxing Day. Our post today explores my favorite Christmas story of all time, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

My Sister's Ornament, cjjaspI have talked about this novella many times, as I think it is one of the most enduring stories in Western literature. The opening act of this tale is a masterclass in how to structure a story.

I love stories of redemption–and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens remains one of the most beloved tales of redemption in the Western canon. Written in 1843 as a serialized novella, A Christmas Carol has inspired a landslide of adaptations in both movies and books.

Charles Dickens was a master of storytelling, employing hooks and heavy foreshadowing to good effect. Let’s have a look at the first lines of this tale:

Christmascarol1843_--_040“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

In that first paragraph, Dickens offers us the bait. He sinks the hook and reels in the fish (the reader) by foreshadowing the story’s first plot point–the visitation by Marley’s ghost. We want to know why Marley’s unquestionable state of decay was so crucial that the conversation between us, the readers, and Dickens, the author, was launched with that topic.

Dickens doesn’t talk down to his readers. He uses the common phrasing of his time as if he were speaking to us over tea — “dead as a doornail.” This places him on our level, a friend we feel comfortable gossiping with.

He returns to the thread of Marley several pages later, with the little scene involving the doorknocker. This is where Scrooge sees the face of his late business partner superimposed over the knocker and believes he is hallucinating. This is more foreshadowing, more bait to keep us reading.

At this point, we’ve followed Scrooge through several scenes, each introducing the subplots. We have met the man who, as yet, is named only as ‘the clerk’ in the original manuscript but whom we will later know to be Bob Cratchit. We’ve also met Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who is a pleasant, likeable man.

These subplots are critical, as Scrooge’s redemption revolves around the ultimate resolution of those two separate mini stories. He must witness the joy and love in Cratchit’s family, who are suffering but happy despite living in grinding poverty (for which Scrooge bears a responsibility).

We see that his nephew, Fred, though orphaned, has his own business to run and is well off in his own right. Fred craves a relationship with his uncle and doesn’t care what he might gain from it financially.

By the end of the first act, all the characters are in place, and the setting is solidly in the reader’s mind. We’ve seen the city, cold and dark, with danger lurking in the shadows. We’ve observed how Scrooge interacts with everyone around him, strangers and acquaintances alike.

Now we come to the first plot point in Dickens’ story arc–Marley’s visitation. This moment in a story is also called “the inciting incident,” as this is the point of no return. Here is where the set-up ends, and the story takes off.

Dickens understood how to keep a reader enthralled. No words are wasted. Every scene is important, every scene leads to the ultimate redemption of the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge.

This is a short tale, a novella rather than a novel. But it is a profoundly moving allegory, a parable of redemption that remains pertinent in modern society.

In this tale, Dickens asks you to recognize the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution has displaced and driven into poverty and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely.

This is a concept our society continues to struggle with and perhaps will for a long time to come. Cities everywhere struggle with the problem of homelessness and a lack of empathy for those unable to afford decent housing. Everyone is aware of this problem, but we can’t come to an agreement for resolving it.

A Christmas Carol remains relevant even in today’s hyper-connected world. It resonates with us because of that deep, underlying call for compassion that resounds through the centuries and is, unfortunately, timeless.

Ghost_of_Christmas_Present_John_Leech_1843As I mentioned before, this book is only a novella. It was comprised of 66 handwritten pages. Some people think they aren’t “a real author” if they don’t write a 900-page doorstop, but Dickens says differently.

One doesn’t have to write a novel to be an author. Whether you write blogposts, poems, short stories, novellas, or 700-page epic fantasies, you are an author. Diarists are authors. Playwrights are authors. Authors write—the act of creative writing makes one an author.

Today’s images are two illustrations by John Leech from the first edition of the novella published in book form in 1843.  We’re fortunate that the original art of John Leech, which Dickens himself chose to include in the book, has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to the good people at Wikimedia, these prints are available for us all to enjoy.

From Wikipedia: John Leech (August 29, 1817 – October 29, 1864, in London) was a British caricaturist and illustrator. He is best known for his work for Punch, a humorous magazine for a broad middle-class audience, combining verbal and graphic political satire with light social comedy. Leech catered to contemporary prejudices, such as anti-Americanism and antisemitism, and supported acceptable social reforms. Leech’s critical yet humorous cartoons on the Crimean War help shape public attitudes toward heroism, warfare, and Britain’s role in the world. [1]

Happy Boxing Day, my friends. Write what you love, and may the New Year offer you all the inspiration you need. May you be happy, healthy, and may you have many opportunities to tell your stories.


[1] Wikipedia contributors, “John Leech (caricaturist),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Leech_(caricaturist)&oldid=871947694 (accessed December 25, 2022).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christmascarol1843 — 040.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christmascarol1843_–_040.jpg&oldid=329166198 (accessed December 25, 2022)

A colourised edit of an engraving of Charles Dickens’ “Ghost of Christmas Present” character, by John Leech in 1843. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Ghost of Christmas Present John Leech 1843.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Ghost_of_Christmas_Present_John_Leech_1843.jpg&oldid=329172654 (accessed December 25, 2022).


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9 responses to “A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – a masterclass in structure #amwriting

  1. Like the story itself, I don’t seem to ever tire of reactions to and analysis of A Christmas Carol. This post is particularly good. I enjoyed this, and I appreciate your sharing your insight. I hope you are enjoying the holidays, and I wish you a Happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Johanna Flynn

    I particularly like how you encourage writers of all types. God Bless us every one!

    Liked by 1 person