EDITOR’S NOTE: In the spirit of the giving season, the Poynter Institute gave us permission to use this piece (first published by Poynter Dec. 10) in which Roy Peter Clark teaches us all the things we can learn about writing (and life) by studying “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We offer it as a gift to you this last rushed weekend before Christmas, with the hope that your days have moments of quiet, your gifts are more thoughtful than large, and you can get Burl Ives out of your head by the new year.
It’s been my habit, when faced with a question I cannot answer, to break into song. It happened once at a Harvard conference on narrative. Unable to think of a better story example, I began singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
It turned out to be a useful choice, and I’ve used the story of Rudolph as a “mentor text” ever since. At 88 words, “Rudolph” is shorter than the Jesus parables and the Lincoln speeches, works often praised for their brevity and high purpose. In the digital age, writers need reminders that memorable stories can be told in short forms.
(I tackle that topic in the book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.”)
I now believe that there may be no more efficient example for teaching the elements of story than “Rudolph.” I use it to discuss the naming of characters, the telling detail, the inciting incident, the narrative arc, the story engine, the mythic archetype and the big payoff.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting for such a light lyric, and we have two men to thank for it. The story was created by a Chicago writer named Robert L. May. He had been commissioned to write a Christmas story for the Montgomery Ward department store. May claimed he got the inspiration one foggy day staring out of his office window. Wouldn’t it be great if a reindeer’s nose could cut through the fog like a searchlight?, he wondered. So Rudolph has a birthdate: 1939, and a birthplace: a booklet published in Chicago.
It turns out that Robert May had a sister named Margaret who married a New Yorker named Johnny Marks. A brilliant man with musical talent, Marks converted his brother-in-law’s story into a song. One of America’s great singing cowboys, Gene Autry, was persuaded by his wife to record it. In 1949 it hit No. 1 on the music charts and by the 1980s had sold 25 million copies, making it the second most popular song of that era, behind “White Christmas.”
By the time of his passing in 1985, Marks — a Jewish man from New York — left behind an amazing legacy of secular Christmas hits, including “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (for Brenda Lee), “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” (for Burl Ives) and “Run, Rudolph, Run” (for Chuck Berry).
I was born in 1948, so the song and the story of Rudolph have been with me and other Baby Boomers all our lives, with multiple spin-offs including a 1964 television program with stop-action animation that creeps me out.
Let’s go back to the original lyrics and see what they have to offer writers and storytellers of every generation in all genres:
NAMING: Poets love the names of things. So do journalists, especially the names of dogs. Fiction writers get to invent names, and some, such as J.K Rowling, do it exceedingly well: Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, Hermione Granger, and so many more. An introduction to the Rudolph song names the eight reindeer made famous in the poem by Clement Moore, the work now known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
There was Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Recite those names and experience a little feast of sound imagery: including alliteration, assonance, meter, and rhyme. Rudolph (he was almost Reginald or Rollo) shares two syllables with the herd, but the initial R and final F sounds find no connection with the others. Starting with his name, Rudolph is a creature set apart.
TELLING DETAIL: From the song, we know nothing about the appearance of the other reindeer, but Rudolph has a single distinguishing characteristic, what Tom Wolfe might call a “status detail.” Like his name, that shiny, glowing nose sets him apart. But in a good way, or a bad? For me as a kid, that schnozz was great because of its practicality, like Edward Scissorhands’ hands. I was afraid of the dark, so how cool would it be to have a flashlight right in the middle of your face. In that way, Rudolph was like a comic book superhero with a superpower, an X-creature.
But that blessing turned out to be a curse. Even without social media, the other reindeer bully Rudolph, seeing his nose as a freakish disability. They laugh at him, call him names, and withhold their play. He is excommunicated.
INCITING INCIDENT: Screenwriter Robert McKee argues that good stories need an inciting incident, a moment when daily life takes a dramatic, unexpected turn. Every episode of the original TV drama “Law & Order” begins with ordinary New Yorkers doing ordinary things until they stumble upon a corpse. This move is so powerful we even forgive its predictability.
You might think that the cruelty of the other reindeer would incite action, but that is only until the fog threatens the delivery of toys on Christmas Eve. The story must find a way to neutralize the threat of a toyless Christmas to the children of the world, a return to the peace disturbed by the inciting incident.
STORY ENGINE: The inciting incident usually creates a question that only the story itself can answer. Tom French, who teaches narrative writing at Indiana University, calls that question a “story engine,” and we recognize its conventional expressions: from who-done-it to who-will-get-there-first to guilty-or-not-guilty? In “Rudolph,” the story engine is fueled by Santa’s dilemma: how to deal with the bad weather on the most important night of the year.
MYTHIC ARCHETYPES: Perhaps my favorite pair of narrative archetypes are these: the Blessing becomes the Curse; and the Curse becomes the Blessing. We see this in the story of King Midas, where he gets his wish that everything he touches turns to gold. That works for the greedy king until he holds his young daughter. I can think of dozens of stories — including one that ended in murder — in which the winner of a lottery finds not happiness but loss and despair.
Just as often, a curse can become a blessing in the way that the blindness of Ray Charles contributed to his becoming a musical genius. Particularly effective in “Rudolph” is the way both patterns emerge. In the first 44 words, the blessing of that wonderful nose becomes the curse of disfigurement and alienation. By the next 44 words, Rudolph becomes a flying headlamp, the savior of Christmas.
PAYOFF: Every Hallmark Christmas movie I have ever seen ends with the predictable payoff, a Hollywood ending in which the female protagonist finds love and saves her small hometown from destruction by big-city developers. And, however brief and chaste, you need that kiss.
Endings to stories need not be happy to be satisfying. If the patient dies, at least we know that the surgeon did everything she could to save him and will give her all for the next patient. In general, readers desire a reward for watching, or reading, or listening to the end. “Rudolph” delivers big time. Not only do we share the happiness of a saved Christmas, but we relish the transformation of the fickle reindeer who once despised Rudolph but now cheer him and claim that he will go down in history — yep, like George Washington.