Tag Archives: the first quarter of the novel

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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The Strong Opening Act #amwriting

Every story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. This is where the author establishes the tone of what is to follow. The intended impact of the book can and should be established in the first pages. In this chapter, we want to:

  • Introduce the protagonist(s). Who and what are they?
  • Introduce the setting. Where are they?
  • Introduce the conflict. What does the protagonist want? What hinders them?

The best stories then kick into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point.

Novels are not unlike a gothic cathedral–they are created of small arcs supporting other arcs, combining to create an intricate structure that rises ever higher. Because the strength of the story arc depends on the foundation you lay in the first quarter of the book, it’s crucial that you introduce a story-worthy problem in those pages, a test that will propel the protagonist to the middle of the book.  This event isn’t the main event, but it gives the reader a taste of what’s in store for them.

This is the hook. The author raises a question and sets the protagonist on the trail of the answer. In finding that answer, the protagonist is thrown into the action.

  • I learned this the hard way—long lead-ins don’t hook the reader. Long lead-ins offer too much opportunity for the inclusion of insidious info dumps.

My favorite books open with a minor conflict, evolving to a series of ever greater problems, working up to the first pinch point, the place where the characters are set on the path to their destiny.

The inciting incident is where the protagonists first realize they’re blocked from achieving the desired goal. They must find a way around it, and that leads to another crisis scene. The story arc is comprised of scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist  toward the final showdown.

Open with a strong scene, an arc of action that

  • illuminates the motives of the characters,
  • allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and
  • offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.
  • The end of one scene is the launching pad for the next scene, propelling the story arc.

The clues you offer at the beginning are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

In the opening, focus on the protagonist and introducing their problem. Subplots should be introduced after the inciting incident has taken place. If you introduce them too soon, they can distract the reader, making for a haphazard story arc. In my opinion, side quests work best if they are presented once the tone of the book and the main crisis has been established. Good subplots are excellent ways of introducing the emotional part of the story.

Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what launches the story.

Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. For the protagonist, personal weaknesses are exposed, offering the opportunity for growth. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling.

Or, if they aren’t, they should be—after all, the struggle is the story. How long do you plan the book to be? Take that word count and divide it by 4—place your first major event at the ¼ mark. The following two quarters are the middle, and if you have set your plot up right, the middle should fall into place like dominoes.


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