Tuesday, April 06, 2021

5 Ways to Use Holidays in Your Story

By Bethany Henry

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Celebrations can be delightful backdrops for a novel. Bethany Henry shares tips on how to enrich your story with a holiday.

Bethany Henry writes fantasy novels and blogs about writing and wellness at bethany-henry.com. When not writing, she can often be found on the frisbee field, drinking tea, or reading picture books with her two little girls. Sign up for her email list for weekly posts on writing craft- along with fun extras like quotes and freebies.

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Take it away Bethany...

People have been setting aside dates to celebrate since the beginning of time—harvest festivals, sun festivals, athletic events and days that marked times of the year. Any excuse to get together and party!

Some holidays (I’m looking at you, Christmas!) certainly get a lot of attention and love in fiction, enough that it’s marked as its own genre. But other holidays can be great fodder as well. Easter, Halloween, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Ramadan, New Year’s…any one of them could be the perfect backdrop to enrich your story.

Celebrations don’t need to be a big deal or the focus of the book to work. Holidays don’t even need to be real—perhaps your fantasy world has its own holidays that shed new light on the culture or people.

Regardless of how you approach it, here are five ways a holiday might benefit your current WIP.

1. Showcase the Season

A holiday can be a helpful technique to set the stage for the story and help readers feel immersed in the setting. 

Is it two days before Halloween and the jack-o-lanterns are being placed with care on the front steps? Or are there signs advertising the upcoming 4th of July parade and the neighbors are hanging flags outside all of their windows?

These holidays can be landmarks of the season, touchstones to help readers to connect with the setting and better picture what season the story takes place in.

One thing to keep in mind: seasons aren’t universal and holidays are celebrated differently in different places and at different times. Christmas in Montana may look like a snowy postcard, but Christmas in New Zealand looks like a poolside BBQ. Like with everything else, do the research to get it right.

(Here’s more with 3 Steps To Ground Readers In Your Story World)

2. Showcase the World or Setting

A holiday or celebration can immerse and intrigue readers in your world, as well as help them have an immediate sense of where the story takes place.

Since holidays are built on tradition and local customs, they’re an excellent way to show those customs and the values in action. And if there are multiple cultures present, you can show how they differ, and how they’re similar. 

Is it a fantasy world where a country is celebrating its independence? This is a great chance to explain a bit of history and show general cultural and political attitudes. Or maybe your story takes place in a diverse neighborhood of New York city where readers can experience different holidays and traditions they may not be familiar with.

One thing to keep in mind: worldbuilding (holidays and all!) often sticks with the “default” setting—such as fantasy worlds that all resemble medieval Europe, or small towns that all look like Mayberry. Why not break out of that box a bit? Try to push it further, do a bit of research, and include details that show something unique about your novel, culture, or holiday.

Worldbuilding can be a fascinating and powerful part of a story so don’t overlook it.

(Here’s more with Going Beyond The Default In Your Worldbuilding)

3. Showcase the Characters

Holidays can bring out the best and the worst in people, and they can be a fun way to illustrate who your characters are. Is your protagonist more of a Buddy the Elf character or a Grinch? Do they love holiday party planning or are they hiding from all the bustle somewhere up in their room?

And this doesn’t just apply to your protagonist. Friends, families, and other characters all get a chance to show their various quirks, and display behavior not normally seen on an average day. For some, holidays may be a fun and joyous time, and for others not so much. (Just like in real life.)

One thing to keep in mind: be careful not to revert to stereotypes. Do you need to make the old man a cranky grouch who hates Christmas? Does it need to be the sweet grandmother who's making the cookies? Get creative and show all types of people celebrating in different ways. 

(Here’s more with Fix Your Reader’s Pet Peeves: Stereotypes and Characters)

4. Throw Off Normal Routines

Great stories are made from chaos and change inserted into normal life, and guess what? Holidays are usually full of chaos. They give you plenty of opportunities to shake things up, mess with routines, and throw everything out of wack.

Do the characters need to travel cross-country to be reunited with family? Close down their hardware shop for a holiday vacation? Host visitors from out of town or get together with long lost friends? Maybe they’re heading home from school on break, or are lonely and looking for something to do?

There are as many different ways to celebrate as there are people on this planet, so there’s no shortage of ways normal routines can be upended through special occasions. Different families, jobs, and social groups may have differing expectations of how to celebrate as well, which can add even more chaos to your protagonist’s life.

One thing to keep in mind: chaos doesn’t automatically equate an engaging story; the protagonist also needs to have some sort of problem they’re trying to solve. This is all about making sure you have fleshed out character goals and motivations.

(Here’s more with Your Scene Needs a Problem)

5. Introduce a Ticking Clock

Having a deadline or ticking clock in your story can create urgency and raise the stakes, which keeps readers reading to find out what happens next. Since holidays are often tied to a specific date with specific obligations or events, they’re useful to create those deadlines. 

Will the protagonist manage to get home to their loved ones before Christmas morning? Will they manage to defeat the villain before dastardly plans are carried out at the Snow Crystal Festival?

One thing to keep in mind: be careful the deadline doesn’t feel cheesy or contrived. The conflict in the story should be relevant, the protagonist’s motivations should be clear, and there should be established cause and effect so that readers understand why it matters.

(Here’s more with How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character and Propels Your Plot)

Plus… Holidays are Fun!

Okay, so maybe this is actually the number one reason to include holidays in our stories, because what’s not to love about having a celebration? (grin).

Holidays can bring out all the festive and mushy feelings in all of us, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the trappings and traditions tied to them. Never underestimate the value of having fun with our stories!

Maybe a holiday fits into your story and maybe it doesn’t. You don’t need to twist things around to somehow cram a festival into the plot if it doesn’t belong there, but it might be the perfect solution to a sagging story.

The key is to examine what serves your story and makes it the best it can be—using a holiday is just one more tool you can use.

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