Sunday, April 15, 2012

Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Downton Abbey

Recently my family and I have been watching the wildly popular British miniseries, Downton Abbey. If you like large, beautiful English country houses, lavish costumes, and plenty of Upstairs/Downstairs drama , this series is a must see! I’d watch it for Highclere Castle alone!

As I’ve been watching this, I’ve been wondering why this show is so popular among so many who wouldn’t normally watch a period drama. Plus, how the screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, manages to keep the conflict escalating for such a long time and never once bores the viewers.

If this can happen with a T.V. series, it can, and should, certainly be done with novels. Just what keeps the readers and viewers coming back for more and anticipating the next scene? How can we learn from successful period dramas and incorporate some of their techniques as writers?
This is what I’ve come up with. I’ll try not to give too many spoilers , so if you decide to watch the series for yourself everything will still be a surprise.
1 – Introduce a new character – Often, when one plot or storyline is exhausted, a new character will be introduced and no matter how minor, ramp up the conflict in some way. This is also a great technique for us writers to use. If the storyline is starting to drag, intro a new character and see how she or he can add tension and drama.
2 – Make the villain more villainous – Anyone who’s seen even one episode of Downton, will know it has it’s villains. For example, Thomas, the scheming footman, and Miss O’ Brien, the evil lady’s maid. Or, Sir Richard Carlisle, one of the antagonists in Season 2. Sometimes there seems to be no end to what misery these characters can inflict. They always seem to be getting worse and worse! I’ve found that giving your antagonist a score to settle or a vendetta against a particular person (preferably one of your main characters) can often add new complications and subplots.
3 – Add Humor – After you’ve introduced all these new characters and made the villains more evil, perhaps it’s time for a change. And Downton Abbey would not be Downton Abbey, without those funny one liners, usually delivered in a cut glass British accent by the dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith. Such lines as, “what’s a weekend”, and her “swivel chair” scene have become constant quotables at our house. Adding a character who has biting wit or a fun sense of humor can balance out your novel.
4 – Give your character’s actions long lasting consequences – Make the stakes higher! Sometimes while watching Downton, I wonder how much higher they can go? Give your character a secret, or a scandal, or perhaps a suspected murder, and always be piling on more and more tension. Have one character’s actions affect their whole family, or put them in jeopardy of losing their job. Drag this conflict out, to keep readers guessing.
5 – Leave readers hanging – End each chapter with a bang! Each episode of Downton leaves readers wanting more. The ending of the first season makes it impossible to not watch the second. I won’t spoil things by mentioning the wonderful ending of Season 2. J End a chapter with a character discovering something, (maybe they’re going to inherit an estate J) or perhaps end it with a funny one liner. But make sure to end it so that readers can’t wait to turn to the next page.
 So there you have it. Five tips on writing I’ve learned from watching Downton Abbey. I’m already putting these in place in my own writing and loving the results! By the way, I also viewed the most recent mini-series from Julian Fellowes on the Titanic, and he incorporated these same techniques with similar results. Maybe he’d like to do the movie adaptation of my next book? (Just dreaming here!!)
Happy Writing,
Your Turn – Have you watched Downton Abbey? Feel free to stop by and chat it up. I’d love to hear what you thought of the show and/or these tips.

1 comment :

Keli Gwyn said...

These are great tips, Amanda.

I watched the first season of Downton Abbey and was totally smitten. I'm eager to watch the second, but it has a "very long wait" on Netflix. Ah, well. That just builds the anticipations, I suppose. =)