What I learned about writing and storytelling from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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 song […]

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