RHYS BOWEN: I don't know about you but I am amazed at the success of Downton Abbey. I don't recall a TV program that has so gripped the nation since we all debated who shot JR. (I was a mere slip of a girl then, of course, but I remember it vividly).
Of course I knew I'd adore it. English aristocrats at the beginning of the Twentieth Century are my bread and butter. I am fascinated by that time after the first world war when there was this tremendous contrast between the lifestyle of the Crawleys and those who were lining up for soup, or so damaged from the war that they could no longer work. And I love those gorgeous costumes, don't you?
But why is the rest of the country hooked? Why are we all suddenly so interested in what happened so long ago and far away? In a lifestyle so remote from our own?
Many years ago my then agent wrote a book on how to write a blockbuster novel. He said that the whole thing had to be larger than life--characters, setting, plot. And I guess this applies to Downton. Normal families don't live in giant castles, or have such dramatic ups and down of fortune. Most of us don't have evil servants either. So what can we learn from Downton Abbey that we can apply to our own writing, to help us to write something the whole country will fall in love with?
Here is my top ten list. Maybe you can add to it.
1. Create characters that touch our hearts, with whom the reader can identify.
2. Make bad things happen to these characters. The more we love a character the more we should fear for them, weep for them. Think Mr. Bates and Anna.
3.Create someone really evil, whom we love to hate.
4. Include the bitter-sweet tension of romance. Will our ill-fated couple ever get together?
5. Make the most of dramatic moments--think of the moment when Matthew walked again, when Lavinia saw him kissing Mary and then died.
6. Create a rich, detailed and wonderful setting--a setting that takes the reader to another time and place, so that reading the book is like taking a mini-vacation. Include all the senses, lavish meals, the swish of silk in those fabulous costumes, the aroma of cigars.
7. Set the whole thing against a backdrop of incredible tension. it's hard to beat WW1.
8. Include great dialogue, wit and humor
9. Finish episodes with a cliff-hanger. Make the reader want to turn the page.
10. And a lavish stately home doesn't hurt either.
I know that Downton is more soap opera than most of us choose to write, but the point we can take from it is to heighten emotion, make the most of tension and create memorable characters whom the reader will care about. Think of Gone with the Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. David Copperfield. All the great books follow these rules, don't they?
Of course there are also some ridiculous plot twists I would never want to include in my writing. I think you can get away with more on TV. So now miraculous letters from a dying woman turning up in my books, nor out of character affairs between master and maid.
What do you think, Reds? Have you learned anything from Downton?