EDITOR’S NOTE: As this Christmas weekend settles upon us, I reprise this little essay from two years ago as a Storyboard gift to all the storytellers and story readers/listeners/watchers out there. It was first posted Jan. 7, 2022, which seems like a very long time ago — and yesterday.

If this seems dated (it’s inspired by a Christmas movie, after all), consider this: The best of stories are, or should be, universal and timeless. And thus a breath-catching moment early in the recent season’s Netflix movie, “A Boy Called Christmas.”  I’ve tucked it in my teaching files, right next to the master storytellers of the ages, and plan to carry it into the new year, which doesn’t feel as new as we might have hoped.

Dame Maggie Smith as Aunt Ruth in "A Boy Called Christmas"

Dame Maggie Smith as Aunt Ruth in the Netflix movie, "A Boy Called Christmas"

The quick backstory: Three kids are dreading Christmas eve. Their mother has died. Their father has to go to work. He calls the awful Aunt Ruth to babysit, which makes the children vow they will all go to bed early rather than spend time with her.

Aunt Ruth is played brilliantly by Dame Maggie Smith, who shrugs at the childrens’ disdain and settles them in for a story. And that launches the movie, which is a story about a story within a story.

Aunt Ruth soon has the children hanging on her every word. She knows exactly how to pace her tale and when to pause at high tension points — suggesting they can continue the story on her next visit — in ways that leave them begging for more. No other spoilers here. Maybe the movie could have been tightened a bit in the middle. But I was as enchanted as the children, and hooked to the end.

Full disclosure: I like Christmas and all the schmalz that goes with it. In a life and career defined by reality, I welcome a bit of fantasy that asks me to believe in something more. But what held me through the movie — even when I pretty much figured out it would end — was watching the story craft play out: Compelling characters, intense action, relatable emotion, moments of surprise and yes, tension and pacing. It’s all launched with that short line that comes very early in the movie:

The youngest of the children chides Aunt Ruth for being old (Children. So honest!), then demands to know why they have to listen to her tale. Here’s the dialog:

“Because the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

What a powerful little play on words: “Universe” becomes a clever stand-in for the idea of stories that deliver a universal truth.

Atoms may be the miraculous collection of the smallest things we are made of — the units of matter. And maybe stories are the biggest that hold us all together.

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