Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing the Three-Hanky Story

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Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, in his grotto.

Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing the Three-Hanky Story

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

It's the holiday season. Time to get out the hankies.

If you don't watch at least one movie this season that makes you cry, I miss my guess. I'll bet you do it on purpose, too. As a writer, you should know that your readers are going to expect the literary entertainment that is called 'holiday fare'1 to contain stuff that makes them feel good about feeling bad – real emotional, heart-wrenching stuff.

In short, they expect you to supply tear-jerk porn.

So, how do you do this? There's a tried-and-true formula, known to writers such as Dickens, and I'm going to teach you the recipe for the Three-Hanky Story, so that you can do it, too.

We aren't going to bother Mr Dickens, whom you know, because the most successful of all the tear-jerk writers was without doubt that Danish expert in the cruelly maudlin, Mr Hans Christian Andersen. Mr Andersen ruined my childhood with his stories, so that I was afraid of the children's section of my library. So you know you're learning from the best.


  • One intolerable situation: broken home, unemployment, homelessness, poverty (or extreme wealth, but without love).
  • Some very bad weather.
  • One pathetic, though winsome, child.
  • One supernatural event.

You can see the first ingredients here:

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening – the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet...She carried a quantity of matches in an old apron, and she held a bundle of them in her hand.   'The Little Match Girl', by Hans Christian Andersen.

We mentioned that the child has to be winsome:

The flakes of snow covered her long fair hair, which fell in beautiful curls around her neck...

No sense in crying over a kid that doesn't have blonde curls, right? Be sure to put in that telling detail. We'll get to the supernatural part later: first, we have to stir the pot a bit.


  1. Remember the intolerable situation? In this case, the kid has to sell matches, and it's snowing. Make it worse:

    When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.
    One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself. So the little maiden walked on with her tiny naked feet, that were quite red and blue from cold.

    Oh, that mean urchin. He's a keeper.
  2. Make the adorable victim want something she cannot have:

    From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose, for you know it was New Year's Eve; yes, of that she thought.
    Oh, the poor, wee lass, you think as you sip your hot cocoa.
  3. Make sure nobody in the story is helpful at all:

    ...and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money: from her father she would certainly get blows, and at home it was cold too, for above her she had only the roof, through which the wind whistled, even though the largest cracks were stopped up with straw and rags.

    Are you sniffling yet? The tissue box is on the table.
  4. Describe the misery of your protagonist at length. Your reader wants to wallow in it – preferably from the comfort of his/her sofa:

    Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. Oh! a match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it. She drew one out. "Rischt!" how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. The fire burned with such blessed influence; it warmed so delightfully. The little girl had already stretched out her feet to warm them too; but – the small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.

    Are we miserable enough yet? Then it's time to...
  5. Bring in the Supernatural Element. This can be: a Fairy Godmother or other Professional Helping Person. Santa Claus, Hogfather, or some traditional (or invented) mythological figure. An angel or similar religious being. Or take the cheap option, like Andersen, and use the old standby, the Benevolent Hallucination:
    She drew another match against the wall: it was again light, and in the lustre there stood the old grandmother, so bright and radiant, so mild, and with such an expression of love.

    'Grandmother!' cried the little one. 'Oh, take me with you! You go away when the match burns out; you vanish like the warm stove, like the delicious roast goose, and like the magnificent Christmas tree!' And she rubbed the whole bundle of matches quickly against the wall, for she wanted to be quite sure of keeping her grandmother near her. And the matches gave such a brilliant light that it was brighter than at noon-day: never formerly had the grandmother been so beautiful and so tall. She took the little maiden, on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high, and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety – they were with God.

    (Sob.) Give me a minute to compose myself. There.
  6. Make sure to leave the reader feeling really bad:

    But in the corner, at the cold hour of dawn, sat the poor girl, with rosy cheeks and with a smiling mouth, leaning against the wall – frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. Stiff and stark sat the child there with her matches, of which one bundle had been burnt.

    That's bleak enough. Note, however, that the Little Match Girl is still winsome. Never leave the reader with an unattractive corpse on their hands. It spoils the effect.
  7. Wait! Tack on the Moral:

    No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.

    Ah. I feel so much better now. Pass the marzipan.

Serving Suggestions

This recipe will bring you success in your next holiday issue. It was used by Dickens – who seriously considered letting Tiny Tim die – and by almost every other writer of the 19th Century save Mark Twain and O Henry, who wouldn't dare. (Yeah, O Henry's people are sad and suffering, sometimes. They are never OTT, at least, not by 19th-century standards. They usually try to solve their own problems, as well.) Andersen's story was 'inspired' by a Christmas drawing of the previous year, which tells you that half the fun of eating roast goose around 1850 was feeling smug about all the people who didn't have one. Well, never mind: The fairies will take care of them. Or their dead grandmothers.

In case you feel that Andersen's offering is of insufficient literary merit to grace this most festive of seasons, I feel I should add a footnote for the more poetical among us. After all, the story of the hypothermic lucifer saleswoman sparked the Muse of no less a genius than that great Vogon poet, Mr William Topaz McGonagall, the shame of Dundee:

Her body was found half-covered with snow,
And as the people gazed thereon their hearts were full of woe;
And many present let fall a burning tear
Because she was found dead on the last night of the year,

In that mighty city of London, wherein is plenty of gold
But, alas! their charity towards street waifs is rather cold.
But I hope the match girl’s in Heaven, beside her Saviour dear,
A bright reward for all the hardships she suffered here.
William Topaz McGonagall, 'The Little Match Girl'

At this point, Dear Reader, your Author must pause to shed a Manly Tear. And blow his nose. (Honk.) All right, better now.

Go forth and make the readers cry. It is a salutary exercise, and might possibly make them cough up a check to the Light of Life Rescue Mission. But don't count on it.

They've been watching It's a Wonderful Life every December for years now, and it hasn't made them any nicer.

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Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

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1This phrase makes the present writer gag.

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