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  • Writer's pictureDebra Stang

9 Favorite Holiday Movies and Specials and How They Made Me a Better Writer

One of the things I love about the month of December is the chance to see some of my favorite Christmas movies and specials. These are programs I've enjoyed for years, often since childhood. In some cases, I can almost recite the dialogue along with the actors. All of them have influenced the way I view the world and, to a certain extent, the way I write.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Narrator: Burl Ives. In this sweet TV special, chock-full of my favorite holiday music, Rudolph is reviled and shunned for his glowing nose…until that very nose helps to save Christmas. Writing Lesson: Rudolph doesn't succeed in spite of his differences; he succeeds because of them. Don't be afraid to be unique.

The Ref (1994). Stars: Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Dennis Leary. In this unlikely but clever tale, a burglar takes a feuding couple hostage on Christmas Eve and ends up saving their marriage. Writing Lesson: The dialogue in this movie is fantastic. I watch the Spacey/Davis scenes whenever I get blocked trying to right a particularly nasty argument.

Christmas Vacation (1989). Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Juliette Lewis. Everyman Clark W. Griswold (Chase) tries to plan the perfect Christmas for his extended, feuding family. Needless to say, everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong. Writing Lesson: Perfection is an impossibility. If you insist on striving for it, you'll only make yourself and everyone around you miserable.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Stars: Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood. A department-store Santa believes he's the real thing, but the State of New York believes he's insane and tries to institutionalize him. Writing Lesson: At one point, the Maureen O'Hara character says to her young daughter, "Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to." Most writers have pet projects that we set aside because we have lost faith in them. Maybe it's time to blow the dust off and take another look…even if common sense tells you not to.

A Christmas Carol (1951). Stars: Alastair Sim, George Cole, Kathleen Harrison. We all know the story of the hard-hearted miser reclaimed with the help of a dead friend and three Christmas ghosts. Writing Lesson: By all means, write about your convictions. Charles Dickens certainly did. Just be sure to embed your message in a terrific story.

The Bishop's Wife (1947). Stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven. The bishop (Niven), desperate to find the funds to build a new cathedral for the glory of God (and himself), prays for divine assistance. His prayers are answered, but not in the way he anticipates. Writing Lesson: Sometimes what you want and what you need are two different things. Don't allow whims to lead you down the wrong path.

We're No Angels (1955). Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray. A Christmas comedy ensues when three hardened criminals escape from Devil's Island and find themselves entangled in the domestic problems of a shopkeeper and his family. Writing Lesson: This whole movie is a study of the use of subtle humor. The jokes are so sly and understated that you're likely to miss them if you're not paying attention.

A Christmas Story (1983). Stars: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin. All Ralphie (Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun, but the adults in his life refuse to cooperate. ("You'll shoot your eye out!") Writing Lesson: Take a page from Ralphie's book. Never give up, even if the situation in front of you looks hopeless. Help may come from the last place you expect.

South Park: Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo (1997). Voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes. The whole town of South Park is up in arms about "offensive" Christmas icons including nativity scenes, Christmas trees, stars, lights, and Santa Claus. Ironically, the only thing that doesn't offend them is a talking piece of poo who lectures the townspeople about the true spirit of Christmas. Writing Lesson: No matter how careful you are, you're bound to offend someone with your writing. If you try too hard to be inoffensive, you'll probably end up producing something that is bland, boring, or just plain ridiculous.

Have any holiday movies or specials given you a new perspective on your writing style or career? If so, mention them in the comments.

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