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Writing Lessons From Downton Abbey ©

Recently, we’ve become addicted to Downton Abbey, the British produced PBS show  set on the fictional estate of Downton Abbey in Yorkshire County, England. The show, which begins in 1912 shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, follows the lives of the family and servants living in the impressive country home of Downtown Abbey. The show is the most critically acclaimed English language television series of 2011. By the third season, it was proclaimed the most widely watched television series in the world and had garnered 27 Emmy nominations. Most watchers rave about the wonderful costumes and the unbelievable house and grounds as the reason to watch this show. While those are great, we like the show because anything England fascinates us—well, maybe just Catherine, and we found ourselves laughing out loud at the dialogue. We also were intrigued with the interplay between the social classes.

As we do with most shows and movies we see and love, we began to dissect Downton Abbey to see what makes it tickle our fancy so. Here are a few things we discovered in our analysis.

  1. By the end of season two we counted over 33 regular cast members with equally interesting drama and story lines, both upstairs where the aristocracy lives and downstairs where much of the servants’ drama takes place. The writer of the series says he planned for all the characters to have equally interesting lives.
  2. Every character has a place in the story, from the lowly kitchen maid to the crusty, pompous dowager countess of Grantham. No character is window dressing or extraneous in the story line, and at some point everyone interacts, even the kitchen maid and the dowager countess.
  3. The show is filled with short scenes that jump around. Although it’s not a technique we would recommend for a book, because it can make a storyline choppy and hard to follow, it works in the show. When you have a minimum of 17 characters  per show, who have to share one hour equally, there would be no other way to get in every character, in our opinion.
  4. What you, the viewer, know is never repeated as an explanation on-screen by way of dialogue. Instead you see the reactions of the characters when the crisis is revealed to them. This approach makes figuring out what is happening difficult if you come in late to the story, but it made us want to find out what the elusive references were all about. In other words, we got hooked looking for the reasons for all the fuss.
  5. Only one or two characters get the zinger lines. The dowager countess of Grantham has some lines that make us howl, and they fit her character perfectly. This sort of thing only works when you set your characters’ attitudes and personality up right.
  6. There’s always a character, upstairs and downstairs, that you love to hate.
  7. There’s a character that you love to hate who partial redeems herself.
  8. There are lots of characters with whom you can empathize.
  9. The lovers are kept apart. The push-pull of romantic relationships is the basis of a compelling romance and Downton Abbey does it well. Even the earl and countess of Grantham, the couple whom you think is happily married, have a few moments of doubt about their relationship. We were so wrapped up in their relationship we found ourselves groaning out loud, verbally urging the earl not to cheat on his wife. Matthew and Mary, the couple you want to see happily married, spend two seasons getting to the altar. Even when they marry there is plenty of foreshadowing that trouble will follow in season three.
  10. Downton Abbey is a grand scale show that watchers are naturally drawn to.

So what lessons can you, as a writer, draw from this award-winning television drama?  Here’s what we’ve come up with, aside from creating a compelling world for your book.

  1. Give every character in your book equally interesting lives and purposes.
  2. Make sure no character is there for window dressing. If they don’t serve a critical purpose to your story, get rid of them.
  3. Don’t be afraid of short chapters or scenes, but use them sparingly. It’s harder to follow the written word when you jump around than it is to follow the visual changes in a movie.
  4. Don’t repeatedly explain what is happening or provide info dumps. Your reader is smart enough to remember what she’s read and clever enough to figure things out.
  5. Make your characters’ voices distinct. Everyone can’t have the funny lines or be the snarky character. Also, you should be able to tell who is talking by what they say or how they say it.
  6. Include a character, usually the villain, whom your readers will love to hate.
  7. Make sure the characters you love to hate have at least one redemptive quality to keep them from being one-dimensional.
  8. Include characters your reader can emphasize with. This would normally be your hero or heroine.
  9. Keep your lovers apart if you are writing a romance or have a romance in your book.  This keeps your readers pulling for them and turning those pages to be sure you will give them the Happily Ever After ending they hope for.
  10. Dream big. You might not have a castle to use as your story backdrop, but that shouldn’t stop you from reaching for the stars.

Are you a fan of Downton Abbey?

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