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I am a latecomer to Downton Abbey, the British period drama featuring the subtle intrigues of an upper class family and their household staff. But even if the show is not your cup of tea, the storytelling offers some real takeaways for writers.
Strong characters – Downton Abbey isn’t heavy on action or special effects so it depends on strong characters that the audience immediately responds to, whether positively or negatively. There’s the no-nonsense butler who has a typically hidden but endearing gentle side. Then there’s the white knight who can’t seem to connect with the eldest daughter when it’s clear they are in love. There’s also the conniving footman in cahoots with her Ladyship’s maid. No matter what genre you write, you will never go wrong developing strong characters. Give your heroes a flaw. Give your villains a sympathetic reason for their villainy. Make them opinionated and active, because they are the reason your readers keep turning pages.
High stakes – The series opens with the death of the presumptive heir in the Titanic sinking from then on, the stakes remain high. The possible loss of the centuries old family estate. A death penalty murder conviction. Futures and reputations facing certain ruin. In your story, make sure you keep the stakes high throughout, that your protagonist is constantly in danger of some sort, whether physical, financial or relational. If the risk isn’t there, the readers’ interest won’t be there.
No let-up – At Downton, the family and staff face one disaster after another. Yes, we make it through the Great War but then the Spanish flu hits. We celebrate a marriage just as a risky investment goes south and a fortune is lost. No one would watch if the show was just gloom and doom, but the tension never goes away, even in the lighter moments. In the same way, you can give your readers a breather, but never let them relax. Also place those breathers in the middle of a chapter rather than at the end. That way there’s never an easy spot to put the book down.
Memorable dialogue – Downton memes and quotes are everywhere, especially ones featuring the Dowager Countess. (She gets all the good lines.) Your dialogue must burst onto the page, with flabby words trimmed, weak words strengthened, bland words colored and each line amped with energy.
Tight editing – Downton only has about an hour each episode so to keep things from dragging, they maintain pacing with editing. In one scene, a daughter might say, “I need to tell Papa…” The next scene is NOT the daughter telling Papa, but Papa ACTING on what he’s been told. There was no need to rehash things the viewers already knew, and the episode keeps moving forward. As you edit, make sure each scene propels the plot forward rather than just helping it ooze along.
Writing the Downton way is very simple. Write tightly edited scenes featuring strong characters speaking with snappy dialogue in a near relentless succession of high stakes scenes and situations.
Paula Wiseman is a bestselling author of seven books. She also had the honor of appearing on Lifetime TV’s “The Balancing Act,” where she discussed her books. Learn more about Paula Wiseman at her website/blog: www.paulawiseman.com