How To Write A Great Christmas Story

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Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, and for many people one of the most special times of their lives. Whether you’re a diehard caroler or a Grinch, there’s something magical about the season that makes it ripe for storytelling. Whether you’re looking for a way to get your family in the holiday spirit, or you’re a writer looking for a fresh angle for your next novel, the how to write a great Christmas story is one of the most enjoyable ways to connect with your readers.


Pick a genre

There is no one kind of Christmas story, but if you want to write a great one, you have to know where it belongs. If you are writing, for example, a fantasy story then it might have a Christmas scene, but it’s not particularly relevant to the plot, and might not be what defines the tale. In the same way, a short story about the reindeer business, or a poem about Santa’s life, might use Christmas as a backdrop, but it can also be read any time of year. Christmas stories, by contrast, are where Christmas is as much the heart of the story as its setting. A Christmas Carol, or The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, for example, are perfect in this sense. When Christmas is as much as part of the genre of the work as it is the setting, you know that you’ve written a great Christmas story.

Now that you know why you are writing a Christmas story, you know that you will have to do all the right things. Characters must leave it to have their traditional Christmas adventures. It is not uncommon for the lack of holiday cheer or when spirits are low. These contrasts are done intentionally for the reader’s enjoyment, because well, let’s be honest, it represents a holiday season after all. If you don’t want to focus your Christmas story on Santa Claus, then at least you’d better make sure there’s a nice holiday message wrapped around it. These days as well as the main characters caring about the good wishes for the people they love and the added angle of an opportunity. The overall setting happens in a place full of hope and love, so these sorts of stories are like ways to show the meaning behind Christmas and the season.

Put a Christmas spin on tropes

Like any genre, the Christmas story is bound to a number of well-worn tropes. You can’t avoid tropes completely, but that doesn’t mean you should unthinkingly repeat them. If you find a trope in your Christmas story that you’re tired of, look at it and think — is there a way to flip this? Maybe instead of a dead father, you could have a saved father? Instead of a rescue, could you have a last-minute rescue? Instead of focusing on wooing, could you focus on being wooed? If you can turn a tired trope into something interesting, odds are good you’ll turn an apathetic reader into a lover of Christmas.

The problem with Christmas stories is not the holidays themselves, it’s that they’re predictable. We know the storylines that we are asked to care about — a lonely girl will meet a man that they never expected, true love will blossom, but Christmas will help them realize what they had years beforehand. Sure, you may have a unique spin on these ideas, but odds are awfully good that if you tell the story, certain beats will hit no matter what you do. If you want to put a Christmas spin on a trope, then don’t rely on its predictability to cause a reader to expect one thing and get another, but instead leverage the specific imagery of Christmas present to subvert or reinforce your ideas.

Convey mood

It didn’t take a trained literary scholar to recognize the gifts of Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. When Moore released his famous poem in 1823, he turned what had been a minor story for children into a sensation that would go on to define part of the public imagination about the Christmas season. In his mastery of how to write a great Christmas story, Moore exhibited two tactics every writer can learn. The first is a mastery of tone and mood. Ever read a story that’s just not fun to read? It can happen to the best of writers, but Moore taught himself, and future generations of readers, that mood isn’t about how well you repress your writerly urges, it’s about crafting a story that carries forward. Christmas is about the spirit of giving, after all.

When imagining your next great Christmas story, don’t be afraid to use psychology to create an atmosphere for your characters and your readers. What are your holiday tropes? A decorated house? A tree? Maybe some beloved pets? The more you ask what your story has to convey by way of context, the more effectively you can lead into your own inventive take. If you’re just in the mood for a good winter walk, why not write about how all the snow is a lost toyland? Thanks to Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas, we know now that when we believe in Santa, it’s easier to notice all the cheery frivolity of the Momma Claus-approved season.

Create a memorable setting

Remember, Christmas stories aren’t just ones set in winter or near Christmas. Sometimes the best setting for a Christmas story has nothing to do with the snow and the season. Take, for example, Noel by Christine Johnson, a fantasy story in which there aren’t any yuletide decorations to speak of by Christmas Eve. Then there’s The Ice Princess by Matt Haig, which reminds us that 1884 Alaska was chilly even in summer. Or even Opening Christmas Eve by Clive Barker, set on the East Coast at Christmastime, which pokes fun at the commercialization of Christmas. The trick with writing your setting is balancing your desires to write something that’s a little minimalistic or a little romantic or whatever with the foreknowledge that you need a setting that will keep your readers interested.

Christmas stories usually focus a lot on the family aspect, since Christmas is such an event centered around a family’s traditions. As such, it’s worth remembering that you don’t need a family home’s holiday decorations to make Christmas traditions important. How do you base your story around this theme? What would the holidays be like for that character? You have to have the setting reflect your character, after all.

Don’t rely on seasonal relevance

One of the most powerful ways to build a wintery atmosphere in a short story is with wintery imagery. It’s a time of snow and warm blankets, pine trees and Santa Claus, so it’s no surprise that you might occasionally see winter mentioned in short stories. But unless you’re producing an X-Men-esque tale, don’t depend too much on seasonal relevance for your story. Instead, focus on creating an atmosphere with emotional description. Winter is a concept that’s infused with nostalgic longing, with happy childhood memories, and even by the wonderful warmth of a yule log. These ideas are stronger than their literal winter equivalents. You can take advantage of this to emphasize other sets of symbols, like lyrics for the summery lyrics of holiday songs.

Another great feeling that winter provokes is the desire to stay inside and connect with the people and spaces we hold most dear. It’s easy to take for granted the joy winter evokes, but as an author it can be a tricky emotion to convey as people begin to see Christmas as increasingly materialistic. Don’t reproduce the error of writers who forget how powerful winter can be. Find a way to make your characters use the mood of winter to cultivate coziness and good cheer. This serves to make your characters more aware of the Magic of Christmas, and perhaps even invest them more in the Christmas gift that will change the rest of their lives!

Write a character people will connect with

No matter how well you describe the holiday, your story won’t be a great Christmas story if people don’t want to read it. Further, readers search for great Christmas stories during a specific time every year — long enough in advance of the holiday for authors to build hype for their entries, but not so far in advance that the readers forget them by the time 12/25 rolls around. So if you’re going to write a successful Christmas story, make sure that your main character, a person who is struggling with the holiday in some way, can be someone readers can also relate to when they’re feeling like a holiday.

It’s important to remember that a story should always be about more than a single person or incident. While your main character should be able to evoke a sense of sympathy in a reader, he or she shouldn’t necessarily be the only likable person in the story. From your perspective as an author, think of a Christmas story like a dating site that first asks you to list your favorite things. Providing the reader a supporting cast of characters they’ll care about is the best way to make sure they’ll take an interest in your strand, and to make your story as a whole feel less like a standalone tale and more like an ongoing series of events.

Realise a hero for all seasons

We know your protagonist is special, but the key to a great Christmas story isn’t in specialness — it’s in relatability. Especially during the holidays, when the culture around us becomes one of buying gifts, decorating kitschy fake trees, and sending cards pre-printed with cheery sentiments, we’re drawn to stories that remind us of what’s real and beautiful about humanity. One of the best ways to do this is to tell a story that can be enjoyed by any reader, no matter what their race or background. So play to your characters’ deepest humanity, and give them universal traits we can all understand well. It might seem like an obvious suggestion, but one of the keys to writing a great Christmas story is to make it a story that is catchy and not unbearably sweet. Use humor to get your points across. A heartwarming Christmas story entails some biting irony, along with small doses of cynical comedy. This helps make your narrative more human, more real, as well as making it appeal to a wider reader base.

What scenes or villains can symbolize these deeper human themes? A Christmas story might have a little girl giving away most of the toys that were collected for her at a toy drive, in a vein attempt to spread good will while also dealing with a bout of PTSD — in the form of her doll, which is old, faded, and belonged to her long-dead mother. Your protagonist could be an elderly scam victim, constantly losing money to scammers, who ultimately decides to make one positive difference on Christmas Eve by delivering Christmas cards he’d received to their intended recipients. Of course, you should keep each situation constrained to a short length. The extra detail can create the humor and relatability that make a Christmas story great, without the length getting out of hand. There’s a fine line between humor and sappiness, and it can be a difficult line to walk.

Ensure your characters feel natural

Like any other story, a Christmas story will take place in a certain setting with a series of events. The characters will need to drive the plot forward, for the story to have any meaning. But the characteristics of the characters may make them feel a little stiff around the holiday season, or they may need catalysts to begin their character development. You may need to backtrack and include defining characteristics that make your characters feel true to the season. But if you provide them with a development of personality traits and definition – ideally you do all of it through action and dialogue instead of flowing exposition – then they will become natural, three-dimensional characters on paper, with truly inspiring Christmas stories.

Now, all that you have created above in the process of developing characters might make you forget about the potential for conflict. What’s a good Christmas story without conflict? The good news for readers and writers is that a great Christmas story doesn’t have to originate strictly from physical conflicts, but other conflicts can easily slot into a Christmas setting, and you can create almost any kind of story to fit a quote on Christmas, that may begin with external conflict but that is shaped by internal struggles.

Plot a problem

First and foremost, readers read Christmas stories to be warmed by the holiday spirit. They want to enjoy the indulgence of being whisked away to a magical setting. If you want to write a great Christmas story, you’ve got to infuse it with that holiday magic. The key to magical storytelling? A good problem. This harkens back to the ancient traditions of oral storytelling. No matter how magical the fantasy world, a good protagonist is always up against some kind of problem or challenge. And there’s no challenge that’s more famous or magical than a problem over which a character has no control. Yet it can, if Christmas is involved. From Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts that appear on Christmas Eve to A Christmas Carol, this setup is the backbone of any great Christmas story in literature or film. So choose one of these problems — a visit from ghosts or a chance to right a holiday wrong from the past — and let your story unfold.

The biggest error writers make when plotting a problem for a Christmas story is using Christmas itself as the problem. Instead, a Christmas story requires a temporary problem — something that can be fixed before Christmas is over, or at least something that doesn’t seem long-term. Remember, a holiday is a feeling, someone should be able to enjoy it. That means the problem should be connected to those around the main character, not the festivities themselves.

Give your reader a dollop of cheer

We all know that Christmas can be a stressful time — and if you’re sitting down to write a story, it can be a stressful experience, too. The best Christmas stories balance the yin and the yang — build up the psychological and emotional heaviness of the season with just a hint of hope and the potential for happy endings. Look at A Christmas Carol — Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghosts may be powerful, sinister, and scary, but they are in service of showing Scrooge the joy that could have been his if he hadn’t been such a greedy miser. You can find that kind of balance in most Christmas stories. The trick is to pinpoint the emotional pivot and point of enlightenment, keep it light without being abused, and build your story around it.

Now go back above those scary, potent moments and add a little lightness — look for opportunities to add humor or love. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged plot arc with an internal logic — think throwaway jokes, paper cutouts, or warm feelings, and build on the palette. If you’re not feeling quite where you need to be, there are many books out there that have discovered the perfect balance. Take a look at the following short story collections – even if the beloved Tolkein is notably absent. These books would all be excellent reference guides to help you find your own perfect balance.

Understand the essence of Christmas

Christmas is an intimately personal celebration. It’s uniquely about home, family, and friendship. Though it’ll take place at Christmas, your story doesn’t need to be about Christmas. The same events that play out at Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa can come alive at Christmastime as well. Additionally, other holidays like U.K.’s Halloween or Canada’s July 1st can be just as successfully converted into Christmas stories.

When writing, think about what your characters’ motivations are as they celebrate this holiday. For example, if your protagonists have a daughter, decisions like when to start her on an advent calendar, or the dinner menu may play into their story. Or if you’re trying to write a creepy ghost story set in the middle of winter, keep in mind that Christmas can be a very desolate time in many snowy, remote areas. Additionally make sure you’re writing with festive allusions that Christmas event-goers can identify with. Christmas songs, carols, traditions, etc. should be woven subtly into your scenes.

Reflect on the miracles of beliefs

Every successful Christmas story features a series of miracles, specifically celebrating the belief and celebration of Christianity. This idea, its elegance and beauty, the narrative twists that can come from it and transformations the story can undergo when reflected in a mirror through the prism of the holiday season—above all, its grandeur—should be what drives any storyteller to the Christmas story as a worthy subject. If some other consideration is your main motivation, you inevitably will disappoint yourself and your audience. Any other subject could be suddenly treated as a Christmas story. A hot July night, with apple trees in blossom, could be from Santa or one of his reindeer. Tangerine groves in Tunisia, a tropical storm coming from the south, could be gifts from the north pole, and so on. But, if you wish to write a true Christmas story, you must be ready to create Christmas music in words.

Christmas stories attend to the specific themes, emotions, and states of being best espoused by the religious ideology used in their construction. The beloved hallmark traits of peace, kindness, and an awareness of benign spirits that watch over humanity characterize the best Christmas stories, and make them feel very present throughout autumn and winter, creating a gentle space that warms the hearts and homes of their readers. These elements become powerful reasons for us to read, in and of themselves, and as we read we feel that they are working on us and the people and spaces around us and that it makes them better. A clever and skillful author can build substantial Christmas stories that essentially are aestheticized sermonettes or homilies.

Raise ideas about what Christmas means to readers

Christmas is a time of year all about tradition. As a reader, picking up a Christmas story feels like wrapping up presents and promising to participate in the family fun. Expect your story to include the cliches of mistletoe and a white Christmas, but just as importantly, expect it not to. Readers know when you’re clogging their inbox with spam, and they’ll rebel just as quickly as they tune out your story if you reveal you’re merely using Christmas for your brand of cliche.

Holidays are also like family reunions — you can’t help but compare them to better Christmases in the past. Your story needs to be at least as good, or it’ll feel like an insult. So how do you give your characters, and your story, that perfect feel? Begin by imagining what you want out of your own Christmas reading experience. By understanding the emotions exactly you evoke — how you’d feel, or wish to feel — will be your roadmap.

Whether it’s a melancholy tale, a heartfelt romantic comedy, or a touching novel of charity, a great Christmas story captures one of the many joys of the holidays. It shows the true spirit of togetherness and goodwill, all the while spinning an interesting and captivating story of friendship, family, and the spirit of giving. A great Christmas story will have you wrapped up in the season and thinking of friends and family as you cozy up by your fireplace and read.

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