Saturday, March 17, 2012

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.


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…


Everyone’s got his or her favorite characters in Downton Abbey…but why? What makes us so attracted to these fictional people?


Great 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.


A character’s outside appearance hints at their insides. O’Brien looks like a shrew on the outside and guess what…she is.


Characters that aren’t overly serious all the time, such as Mr. Carson, make them three-dimensional—and wholly relatable.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


Gina Holmes said...

I haven't seen this show, but keep hearing about it and know I would love it. (We dropped cable years ago.) Loved your dissection though and still got something out of it. Great stuff Michelle.

Ane Mulligan said...

Same here, Gina. But after reading this post, I think I need to watch it.

Alycia Morales said...

Gina and Ane,
I ordered Hulu Plus after watching season two on PBS online. I HAD to see season one, so I spent the $8 this month to watch it. It's INCREDIBLE! You never know what's coming next...I can't wait for season three!

This was a great read. I started thinking about my WIP while reading and wondering if I had all the elements. I may have some rewriting to do, but I'm really excited about the pivotal plot line I've worked up to... Thanks for sharing your insights from Downton Abbey.

Ane Mulligan said...

Thanks for that tip, Alycia. I'm going to check it out. :)

Michelle Griep said...

Yo G & Ane ~ I watched the first season on Netflix and got the 2nd as a Valentine gift.

Alycia ~ Looking forward to reading your pivotal plot some day!

Gina Holmes said...

I was hoping you'd say that, Michelle. I'll start watching it on Netflix. I'm so excited!

Janice C Johnson said...

Thanks, Michelle! I got a lot out of this post, even though...
a) we don't have cable,
b) I had never heard of the show, and
c) I read the title as "Downtown Abbey" the whole time.

Like Alycia, I'm off to apply these pointers to my WIP.

Michelle Griep said...

Hmm, dare I admit I merely used the trendy name to attract attention to my points? Nah. Apparently it worked (cue evil laughter).

Thanks for stopping by today, Janice!

Sarah Allen said...

I absolutely adore this show! Bates and Anna are my favorite, and I really feel for Mary as well. Can't wait for it to come back :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Ane Mulligan said...

Oh for pity's sake! I read that as DownTOWN Abbey. I have each time you've said something about it. Good grief, as much as i read, you'd think I'd actually read what's there!

Michelle Griep said...

I hear ya, Sarah. I think that part of their attraction is the how despicable the villains (like Vera) are.

Barbara Scott said...

Last night, I watched an awesome documentary about Downton Abbey on PBS, and it caught us up with all the characters and plot lines. I've been hearing about it from everyone, so your post is good timing, Michelle! I'll definitely rent it from Netflix and watch season 1 and 2. The third season doesn't start until January.

Rita Gerlach said...

Excellent article, Michelle. Thanks for sharing with us such great writing tips.

Downton Abby is by far my favorite period drama Masterpiece has aired. I loved the Jane Austen series and the Dickens series as well. But there is something that just pulls you in with Downton...a mystic not found in the others. Perhaps it is the unpredictability of the story.

Violet is my favorite character. To quote her, 'I'm not being ridiculous. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house - especially somebody they didn't even know.'

Michelle Griep said...

Barbara ~ Run, don't walk, to your nearest Netflix queue button.

Rita ~ As much as I love Downton Abbey, my all time BBC fave is Bleak House. If you haven't seen it, get it. Pronto.

Katja said...

Guess I need to start watching Downtown Abbey...