December is here, which means spiced pumpkin flavored goods have been exchanged for hot cocoa and peppermint. The days are growing shorter and darker, and traffic is becoming more chaotic as everyone tries to squeeze in their last minute holiday shopping. As crazy as it may be at times, December is also a time for family, friends, to say goodbye to the old year and hello to a new, and hopefully better year.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, no holiday, or a different one completely, if you’re having plot issues with your novel you should consider adding a holiday to it. You can go beyond the traditional holidays found in December, writing about Easter, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July, April Fool’s Day, Talk Like a Pirate Day, or whatever holiday is close to either you or the characters in your novel. Below are a list of some of the reasons why you should include a holiday, and how you can incorporate into your story.
Holidays Can Provide Background on the World
If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, than odds are you’ve had to do some serious world-building. You need to convey certain information to the reader so they can better understand the world and plot, but have to do so in a way that avoids having large amounts of exposition or info dumping. Holidays provide a great way to do that.
No matter the holiday, certain traditions are always involved or associated with that holiday. Things like food, colors, symbols, activities, and even religious practices. By showing how the characters observe a holiday, a reader can learn more about their culture, beliefs, value system, and even more about the character themselves. Character A could be really excited about the holiday, while Character B doesn’t really care— and they might have their own reasons, which could be foreshadowing a bigger event.
Think of the Hunger Games which opens with the reaping. It might not be a holiday by our normal definition, but it is an annual event that is observed by everybody in Panem, with major implications. By reading about how Katniss goes about her day and what happens during the reaping, the reader learns about the world’s history and what’s at stake for the characters without it being a complete info dump.
Holidays Can Help With Character Growth
Usually people spend holidays with family, sometimes only seeing them at a certain holiday which can lead to interesting situations and reveals. How a person relates to their family, whether they’re close and looking eager to the reunion or wants to avoid it, can be interesting subplots to explore, and possibly explain a character’s actions so far, or foreshadow how they’ll react to future events.
They could also stumble upon some long hidden family secret or receive a gift that will come in handy later (think Hagrid’s flute or Harry’s invisibility cloak, both of which were received as Christmas presents).
Or maybe their lack of celebrating or returning home can be an opportunity for growth as well. Maybe it’s revealed that they have no family (by situation or choice) to celebrate with, so they either stick to themselves or spend time with friends, who they consider family. Perhaps they got stuck working, or just don’t celebrate the holiday period. Holidays don’t have to be spent in the traditional way, and could still serve as an opportunity for growth.
Holidays Can Kick Off the Plot
If you’re having trouble figuring out how to start your novel, consider adding a holiday. The beginning could be a catalyst for events, or just serve as a background for the rest of the novel. Character A could be expecting a fancy meal or engagement on Valentine’s Day, only to break-up and start on a journey of self-discovery. Character B could return home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, only thanks to a drunken relative discover they’re not really family at all, or an equally unknown, but devastating family secret.
This could also double up with the world-building example. When does the reaping first appear in the Hunger Games? Towards the beginning, not only providing readers with context and background knowledge on the world, but kicking off the plot as well.
Holidays Can Provide a Lull
Sometimes after a big reveal or action scene you need a breather and holidays can certainly provide that. They’re typically times of relaxation, spent in locations where one feels safe and with people one loves. If a character has just gone through some major change or action, they might need a break (as well as the reader) from the plot and having a holiday is a natural excuse for doing just that.
Of course, you could always pull a bait and switch. Just as your characters and the readers think things are calming down, BAM! Unexpected twist or action. Dear old sweet granny isn’t as sweet as you think, or just when your characters think they’re safe, the plot shows up at the front door, not even bothering to knock politely, but kicking it down instead.
Holidays Can Set Up the Climax
The novel could also be working or leading to a major event as well, which also doubles as a backdrop for the climax. Throughout the novel, preparations have begun, decorations must be bought or put up, but it’s in the background and seems minor. Then as the plot begins to accelerate, the holiday suddenly takes center stage. Some holidays involve large public gatherings (parades, New Year Eve Countdown, Easter and Christmas mass) which would be the perfect target for an evil doer up to no good, and the heroes must stop them and save the event. Or perhaps they’re using the event as a distraction for their true plot, using a mob of people as the perfect getaway, or Santa’s sack to make off with their ill-gotten goods.
You can make it obvious that the big holiday or festival event is the setting of your big climax, or try your best to conceal your plot (but don’t forget to include a few bits of foreshadowing so it won’t seem like it’s coming out of nowhere). Either way, using a holiday as your climax could be an interesting ending for your novel.
That’s all for now, stay tuned for my next post which will focus on creating your own holiday for a fantasy or science fiction story.
— Kay S. Beckett