Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tips from Downton--what we writers can learn from Downton Abbey

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?


  1. Every scene and every conversation is based on conflict.

  2. It draws you in so that, for a tiny space of time, you can become immersed in a place where there are no problems of the day for you . . . where you are able to escape the reality in which you live.

  3. I love it for all the reasons you've mentioned but as a writer, and yes to what Jack said. I also appreciate the way the writers and film editors skillfully interweave the different story lines.

  4. That's what I was going to say too, Ro and Jack, conflict, yes, but lots of different conflict. So every single character has a problem and they weave them together so we don't ever get bored.

    It does get a little irritating when the lord and lady are so so dumb about their evil servants. they never seem to learn!

    Nathan Bransford had a post on this same subject yesterday. One excellent point from him--choose a setting that is in TRANSITION. Downton Abbey is definitely that!

  5. It is silly fun, with great costumes and zingy one-liners.

    I think your list is perfect. Lady Edith touches my heart, but I'm just as anxious to see what odious thing Thomas will do next.

  6. It's all about the characters. Even though they are in another time and place, everyone can relate to someone (and most of us can relate to each of them in some small way).

    I think it's important to remember that the "minor" characters are just as important and well-developed as the "main" characters. In fact, in the case of Downton, it's often hard to identify "main" characters. This is harder to do in novels where there if often a central character, but I think the lesson about developing the background characters is very valuable.

    Realistic characters are also very important. I would be hard pressed to call any of these people Evil, with a capital E. Certainly they have done some very nasty things, but in almost all cases I can think of off the top of my head, you can see where that motivation is coming from. No one here was created as a monster, just humans with some huge flaws.

  7. So easy to say but so hard to do! And yet the best authors make this kind of thing look simple and easy, and seamless to the reader. As, I suppose, it should be. I've never seen this show but after this post, I just might give it a go.

  8. We missed the first episode so this Sunday we sat through a three-hour marathon -- the first (2-hour) and second back to back.

    And I confess (is it anathema to admit this?) that I am not loving it. There's only one plot strand that has me riveted, and that's Thomas and Miss O'Brien. Most of the 'conflicts' seems contrived, based on information someone (for no good reason IMHO) keeps secret. And getting poor Lady Edith all the way to the altar before dumping her seemed cruel and unusual. (I am apoplectic, of course, about all that lovely food going to waste.)

    So why is it that I can't wait for the next installment? Probably for all the reasons Rhys and everyone else has pointed out! Is that weird??

  9. What everyone else said. It's just rivetingly good fun, with glimpses of a time gone by. Those interior and exterior scene shots and lovely clothes don't hurt, either.

    The New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs this week has a spoof of Downton Abbey. Pretty funny stuff.

  10. You know, I hate to admit it, too, but so far this season I am, like Hallie, not feeling the love. It may be partly because there have been some very well publicized spoilers about cast and plot developments this season.

    Or maybe it's because they've lost the sense of doom approaching the golden Edwardian dream--and the "we know what's going to happen but the characters don't." Then there was the tension and drama of the war. And now, I'm just feeling a little bit of ennui. I kind of want to shake the Granthams and say, "Get a grip, there are people starving in bread lines."

    Or maybe I'm just crabby.

  11. I am watching, hooked again, but I think the driving force for two seasons was Mary and Matthew--star-crossed lovers are wonderful. And the war, an incredibly gripping backdrop.

    I wish they had kept the losing Downton theme going instead of producing that stupid letter and making everything all right in one episode. Way too pat.

    Sometimes I think Julian Fellows feels he has to dumb down his plots for Americans, or at least speed them up for our short attention span!

  12. Yes! Julian Fellowes clearly does not have much respect for Americans. He pretty well lost a fair-sized chunk of viewers with his crass portrayal of Lady Cora's mother. Shirley MacLaine did a yeoman job of it, but in truth she would not have talked with her mouth full of food, or some of the other nonsensical gyrations Fellowes put her through.

    I'm cautiously optimistic about the rest of the season, though. We'll see if that's cockeyed or warranted optimism.

  13. We thought the Shirley MacLaine character much too broad, especially alongside the subtle Maggie Smith who can say volumes with one raised eyebrow. But the success of Downton is hardly surprising. I remember having the same passion for Upstairs Downstairs.

  14. Yeah, I'm too aware of the plot weaknesses this season...But, that said, like Hallie, I'm still hooked and looking forward to this Sunday! Can't get enough! I think because I love the characters so much that I can set aside the silly plot stuff.

    Isn't that the way of it with books too, especially with series characters? Once we're invested in the characters, we'll put up with a lot of plot shenanigans.

    I wonder if the plot failures this season simply have to do with Fellowes not having as much time to develop the scripts as he did with the first two seasons -- I bet he'd been working on those for a long time...Possible literary equivalent: the fabulous first novel that took years to write, followed up by a weaker one the author only had a year to write -- ?

  15. I love Downton, but... right. It felt like the writers didn't know where to go with all the loose ends and were told to hurry up, tie it up, and move on. Oh, but for god's sake don't tie up any more beloved characters by resolving their conflict. Matthew come baaaaaaaack!

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  17. Oh, I love Downton...but yeah, the "letter" was too pat. Still! What would be worse would be if they'd had to move. I mean--it's just not sympathetic--poor famly, having to live in semi-poverty in a mansion with 8 servants.

    ANd lest we forget--Edith RUINED (for a while) Lady Mary's life. So I think she's not redeemed as yet.

    And maybe Matthew will fulfill his obvious tendency for being depressed and delusional.

    And I do love the clothes.

  18. Did I say Matthew? Noooo... I meant William! I want William back--alive. You'd think they could do something about that. A twin? And Daisy would love him? Yes, they could do that! That would be nothing compared to the altar jilt and the letter deal, all in one hour. Right?

  19. Why, Reine, I do believe you're even more of an optimist than I am! ;-)

  20. I think with this season, the show appears to be suffering by not having a clear multi-episode conflict. For starters, it's hard to buy the threat of losing Downton from the get-go, because let's face it, that's the show's title. The estate isn't going anywhere. If Mary and Matthew's will-they-won't-they carried much of last season (and I would argue that it did), that whole storyline is mostly resolved at this point; at least, it does not carry the level of conflict as in the past.

    The war was a great backdrop last season, but even so, I felt like it was rushed and underutilized save in standard fare of showing how horrible it was. Admittedly I'm biased there, since I studied the war in depth in grad school. I don't think there's only the disillusionment factor at play when it comes to the war experience of the people who fought, served in other capacities, or kept the home fires burning. For instance, for the women who left domestic service and found independence and better pay through munitions work, the war meant something different. The show could have shown us that dynamic downstairs by having one of the maids leave (Ethel could have been used to great effect there), but they never went anywhere near that kind of "modern" change.

    Honestly, Matthew and Mary were the only reason I tuned in last year, and I was satisfied with the way that arc ended. The problem for me was that the 2011 Christmas episode failed to introduce any new conflict for us to build on for the next season, which leaves me a bit perplexed at what little they've offered up so far.

    Sorry, I guess that long ramble basically led me to the conclusion that Downton once had a very successful long-term conflict, which, along with great subplots between the characters, glorious sets, costumes and acting, sucked us in. But now it's lacking that broader arc, and flailing to find its direction.

    So when it comes to storytelling in general, I think that, besides the obvious importance in creating believable settings and complex characters, we need compelling conflict that escalates consistently throughout each chapter, with the stakes rising believably for all the primary characters.

  21. This is a rich subject, this Downton Abbey, because there is something about it that has captured such a wide audience, both men and women. As writers, we definitely ought to reflect on this. I offered my own thoughts here.

    It's also a good exercise to make plot predictions and compare them with what happens. Maybe you had a better idea, maybe not. But you can learn.

  22. Hallie - didn't the servants eat the ledtover food from the wedding?

    Reine - oh, Daisy is going to end up with William's father - can't you see that coming? :-)

    Hey, I would watch it just to listen to Lady Mary's voice, to watch Daisy, or see Maggie Smith speak and move. So many superb characters, even when the dialogue is wooden and the plot line fantastic.