I was watching "A Christmas Carol" today, as performed by a bunch of church kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14 -- including my 13-year-old son, who, I have to disclose, was playing Scrooge -- and I was struck by how bullet-proof the narrative structure of this story is.
The setup is clean: Awful man does a couple awful things, and is presented with a warning. Then, the three spirits in three nights (or one night, as Scrooge discovers, as he awakes in time for Christmas) appear, moving the story from past to present to future. Then we arrive at redemption, and Tiny Tim is saved.
You can do almost anything to this story-- rewrite it, re-gender it, transpose it to any time period, animate it in 3-D or shoot it in black and white, play it for laughs or for pathos -- and if you stick to that structure, the story will work.
The audience, like the original Greeks at a Sophocles play, knows the plot. There are no twists, no surprises. To modern day westerners, the tale is better known than any bible story. And it's much more satisfying than the usual Christmas play material. The birth of baby Jesus -- the gathering of the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, and heavenly host -- is essentially static, the opposite of drama. It's why you can do everything you need to do with that story with those "living creche" enactments. But Scrooge's transformation from curmudgeon to Christmas-filled coot is satisfying.
The only thing we expect out of a new version of "A Christmas Carol" is to get to that ending, and along the way to be charmed by minor variations in the presentation, or to be won over by the performance of a Bill Murray or George C. Scott or, say, a gangly young man who looks a lot like you.
As a writer, I'm always on the lookout for these iron-clad structures, to either use them or play against them, in the same way an architect first learns how to build a sturdy house, before messing with the structure to attempt something like Fallingwater (There's another blog post to be written about how it is that some artistic masterpieces are on closer inspection leaky, hard to maintain, and way over budget -- yet are still undeniably masterpieces).I'm interested to know what narrative structures my fellow Clockworkers most often make use of (the old buff and bluff? The Hail Murray? The Susquehanna Shuffle?) And then I will steal them. Because that's what this season is about, isn't it? The giving, the receiving, the re-gifting? That's the real blessing. Or as Tiny Tim says, Are you gonna finish that turkey leg?