Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Christmas Cliche Challenge

We've been mulling on and off all year about this article from the WSJ about the standard cliches of the Hallmark Christmas Movie (tm)

However, Hallmark faces a unique challenge: producing three dozen movies about the same holiday while avoiding “Groundhog Day” repetition. 
Often there’s a struggling family business that needs saving, like the cozy inn in “Christmas at Holly Lodge,” the old-fashioned holiday shop in “Sharing Christmas,” or the theater that loses its lease in “Christmas Encore.” 
A big-time star encounters small-town romance in “Marry Me at Christmas,” “A Song for Christmas” and “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” In “The Perfect Christmas Present,” the hero is a personal gift buyer known to his clients as Mr. Christmas—not unlike the nickname for the title character in “Miss Christmas,” whose job is finding the perfect tree for Chicago. 
Executives say it’s the characters that make each movie unique. “Even if there’s a similar tradition in one movie to the next, that doesn’t mean the characters aren’t going on different journeys,” says Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming and network publicity for Crown Media Family Networks. The company is a division of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards, Inc. 
In addition to a feel-good finale, there’s an atmospheric checklist for every movie. “Buying a Christmas tree. Wrapping gifts. Thinking of gifts. Baking and cooking meals. Family gatherings. All of the things that you think of as traditional,” says Randy Pope, senior vice president of programming. 
Snow is a dealbreaker. “Every year we get scripts with something like, ‘It’s the first year in the country’s snowiest city that they had no snow.’ Nope. Not on Hallmark it’s not,” Ms. Vicary says.
Somewhere I once read someone describe writing a romance novel following the strict guidelines of the Harlequin imprint as "trying to stage Swan Lake in a phone booth". I would compare neither a Harlequin nor a Hallmark movie to Swan Lake, no matter how many boxes they both tick, but it did get us thinking: is it possible to create something of quality while following these cliches?

SO, in the spirit of the season, and to try and flex my writing muscles, I'm going to try a NaNo-style project in December: an attempt to write a story with real characters and real stakes, but following the cliches of a Hallmark Christmas movie. The article above starts with a few standards:

  • struggling family business
  • small town
  • Christmas tree
  • wrapping presents
  • buying gifts
  • baking
  • family gatherings
  • snow
Last night, the family sat down and compiled a few more:

  • big-city dweller has to come home to small town to learn The Meaning of Life
  • cute kids
  • caroling
  • church service (maybe not in a Hallmark movie, but standard in many holiday tales)
  • party games
  • mountains? 
  • country, as opposed to city
  • some kind of family tradition
  • Christmas lights 
  • a scene in a gazebo
  • Christmas sweater
And we don't even watch Hallmark movies!

I'm not committed to writing a feel-good story. I'm only committed to using these cliches as story prompts. 

If you have any more cliches that really need to be included, or can throw out some basic plot ideas (such as "Big city girl journalist with uptight business boyfriend gets sent on assignment to cover her hometown Christmas parade, meets up with old flame who is now the local sheriff", etc), toss 'em my way. I'm going to spend tonight finishing up a writing deadline, tomorrow pondering this story plot, and tomorrow evening I'll post the first installment. And may all your cliches be merry and bright!


Linebyline said...

Optional: The overlap between Hallmark Christmas Movie and that other favorite Hallmark genre, American girl is whisked away to a tiny European monarchy where everyone has British accents and where ancient traditions and/or stuffy parents/advisers are stifling the prince who needs an American girl to teach him to loosen up and be himself and possibly convince him to marry her instead of the snobby heiress who only cares about political power/prestige and optionally hates the prince's adorable child(ren), with everything overseen and the forbidden romance encouraged by the castle's infinitely wise, perceptive, and observant support staff.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I think you should place it in a small town rather than the country.

Brandon said...

Hallmark movies bore me to tears, but I think one thing not on your list that comes up a lot is: a wish or hope is fulfilled in an unexpected way.

Foxfier said...

Maybe "backwater"? Covers both, ties into the theme of finding the lost thing you didn't realize was lost or valuable.

Another cliche is a lack of one of the Christmas symbols-- snow, tree, caroling, decorating, gifts, family, church.

Donna said...

The “cute kid” usually has a single parent (widow/er or divorced) who tries to make a match for mom/dad.

Peggy said...

Conflict within the family that really only turns out to be a misunderstanding and all is resolved as the snow gently falls.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late responding to this, and I haven't actually seen any Hallmark Christmas movies, but my siblings and I do occasionally read what we refer to as "sappy romance novels" (aka Harlequin romance novels, but only the "Inspirational" ones because the rest are always inappropriate), and we joke about how one or both of the romantic interests have to have some sort of tragic backstory (heartbreaking breakup, being unloved as a child, PTSD from an accident, etc. etc.). And as somebody else mentioned, often one of the people will have a child or two who need a new mommy/daddy.

Christine said...

There is always, always, always a dead relative. The survivor sharing the story of the dead relative helps bring the lovers closer.