Lessons From Downton Abbey

Is anyone here as hooked as I am on Downton Abbey? I know. Stupid question. Everyone’s talking about it. From the gowns, to the despicable Thomas, to the will-he-or-won’t-she’s…this is one show that’s got something for everyone. Why? Because Downton Abbey nails stunning settings, memorable characters, and pivotal plotlines. So besides drooling with envy, I did what every self-respectable writer would do. I dissected it and came up with a few tips that can benefit every wannabe blockbuster author. STUNNING SETTINGS
There are two words that describe the setting of Downton Abbey: eye candy. The main thing this series excels at is detail. When you watch an episode of the show, it’s like a time warp. Do that with your writing. How?Make it a point to highlight an object, but make sure to tie the object in directly to the action or emotion of the characters. For example, Matthew’s pocket watch. When he pulls it out and stares at it intently, you just know something’s going to happen soon. The object is used as foreshadowing. This detail ups the tension in the scene. Choose with intent what your reader sees, but don’t overdo it. Of course there were piles of dirty dishes whenever Mrs. Patmore and Daisy finished preparing a meal, but did we ever see the disaster? Mostly we saw a bit of flour on the table or a smudge on cook’s face, which was enough to get the point across that these women worked hard. Use lighting to your advantage. You’re not a cinematographer. I hear you. But think about it. It wouldn’t have been nearly as creepy or desperate had Mr. Pamuk’s body been toted off to his own bedroom in broad daylight. Consciously use time of day as part of your story. Downton Abbey is simply a stage, just like your setting is the stage for your story. Treat it with as much care and respect as you would one of your characters, and speaking of which… MEMORABLE CHARACTERS Everyone’s got his or her favorite characters in Downton Abbey…but why? What makes us so attracted to these fictional people? DepthGreat characters have lots of layers. Lady Mary is a prime example. Every now and then we get a peek at the great insecurity she feels, which is often made up for in careless arrogance. Interesting combo. Foreshadowing A character’s outside appearance hints at their insides. O’Brien looks like a shrew on the outside and guess what…she is. Complexity Characters that aren’t overly serious all the time, such as Mr. Carson, make them three-dimensional—and wholly relatable. Imperfection I know. Seems like you’d want your hero to be all that and a bag of chips, but guess what? Those are the kind of characters we usually want to slap. Matthew Crawley is a great guy, but he’s a little too slow to take charge in some situations. Astonishing Memorable characters are surprising. I never know what’s going to come out of Violet Crawley’s mouth. Oh, I like to think I know, but often it’s not what I expect.Secretive A hidden past is a great idea. But don’t tell it all at once. Toss out tidbits every now and then. Hint at it, even. Who honestly didn’t wonder about Mr. Bates’ past? Zealous A compelling character often has a cause they are passionate about, usually one that involves justice. Lady Sybil Crawley cares about politics, women’s rights specifically, which pretty much endears her to every female on the planet. The bottom line is that a great character has to be relatable. That’s what Downton Abbey has going for it. At times everyone is as despicable as Thomas or sweet as Anna. Consider that when crafting your next set of characters. PIVOTAL PLOTLINES From Pamuk’s death to…well, I suppose I shouldn’t give any spoilers in case you’ve not seen all of the second season yet. Let’s just say from start to finish, Downton Abbey keeps the action moving right along. Here’s how… Start out with a bang. Downton Abbey begins with the sinking of the Titanic and takes off from there. Where does your story start? More often than not, think of your first few chapters as a warm-up and be willing to toss them aside. Your opening scenes have to grab the reader by the throat and/or the heart. Do the unexpected.Who’d have known Bates was married? Not me. Predictability is a deal breaker for most readers. As you’re writing, try throwing in a completely random line of dialogue from a secondary character. Or have your hero find a brow-raising object in a drawer. Mix it up. If you don’t surprise yourself as the author, how do you think your reader will feel?End each chapter with a cliffhanger. Who didn’t wonder which family members would die from the flu epidemic? That was a for-sure-gotta-see-the-next-episode kind of ending. Do that with each of your chapters and your reader will have no choice but to finish your book. And remember, cliffhangers don’t always have to be physical danger. Emotional works just as well. Subplots rock. I admit it…I care every bit as much about Bates & Anna as I do for Matthew & Mary. Why? Because the writers of Downton Abbey wove their story throughout the main Crawley saga. And they did it by leap-frogging…tossing out an enticing scene that focused on Lady Mary, then cut to one about Bates & Anna, and switched back to Mary & Matthew. Great technique. Create extra tension with consequences.

So yeah, having a Turk die in Mary’s bed was pretty intense, but when her sister found out and wrote to the Turkish embassy, that certainly upped the consequences…like potential ruination for Mary. Don’t just keep cranking out tense situation after tense situation. Use the scenes you’ve already created to increase the drama by playing out their logical consequences to the Nth degree. There you have it. Incorporate stunning settings, pivotal plotlines, and memorable characters into your own story, and you just might have the next Downton Abbey on your hands.

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas…professionally, however, for the past 10 years. UNDERCURRENT is her latest release, a timeless tale of honor and sacrifice, and is available by Risen Books or Amazon. You can find Michelle at her website, Writer Off the Leash, or on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.