What Writers Can Learn From Downton Abbey

All over our fair land, fans of Downton Abbey are aflutter with anticipation as the third season of the huge hit (already seen in the U.K.) kicks off on January 6. No less a light than Shirley MacLaine joins the cast (which is ironic as she actually lived in Edwardian England).
About a year ago many of my writing friends were fervently chatting up this series. I started hearing it referenced on radio shows and in coffee shops. I finally told my wife, Hey, let’s watch the first couple of episodes of this thing and see what the big deal is.
So we started watching.
And couldn’t stop. We zipped through all the episodes, via Netflix and online, until we were caught up. It had us hooked. We are now two of the faithful.
Are you? If not, may I suggest you get on the stick? And perhaps tread carefully over this post and the comments, as some spoilers may appear. But then again, you will probably forget them when you start watching, because soon enough you’ll just be caught up in the storytelling.
Which leads me to the subject of this post. Why has Downton Abbey proved so popular? I think there are some palpable reasons, and writers can learn from them. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. The characters are complex
The good are not all good and the bad are not all bad. Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, is a novelist (and actor . . .and director . . .) and has brought those skills to the cast. We find something to care about in each of them, even the ones who are less than admirable.
2. Strength of will
When I teach plot, I stress that readers get engaged with a story when a character shows “strength of will.” We bond with characters who are active, not passive. Each character in Downton Abbey has an agenda, and each pursues it in such a way that we want to see how it turns out for them—and how it affects the rest of the characters.
3. Nobility
There is a thread of old fashioned English nobility running through many of the characters, both upstairs and downstairs. It’s what immediately got me bonded to Bates and two of my other favorite characters, Carson and Mrs. Hughes.
Humanity is responsive to noble sentiment. If you can weave that into your fiction you are hitting a nerve that resonates deeply with readers, even if they can’t identify it.
4. The power of love
As the prophet Huey Lewis said, “It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes. But it might just save your life.”
That’s the power of love and in Downton Abbey there are loves gained, loves lost and loves hoped for. There’s a reason romance has been, and probably always will be, the most popular genre. As a culture we are in love with love, and when characters we care about are yearning for it, and suffering for it, we just can’t stop watching their hearts on display.
5. Plot disasters
And in terms of just plain plotting, the writers know how to leave us hanging. There was one particular twist in an early show (I won’t give it away) but fans know what I am referring to if I mention the word Turk. Things like this happen in big ways and little ways. It’s the old fashioned concept of the twist and the cliffhanger. If only there were a book that delved into the secrets of creating all that. Wait, there is.
6. Cross cutting
Downton keeps several plates spinning in each episode, cutting back and forth between the whirling platters like a clever novelist using several POVs. It takes tremendous skill to pull that off, because each POV has to work on its own terms. Downton gets this right.
7. Secrets
Give characters secrets, past wounds, a “ghost” that haunts the present. The key is to raise the specter of a deep secret, show its consequences in a character’s present life, but don’t reveal the source too soon. That mystery keeps us watching to find out the answers. The Downton characters have ghosts from the past that drop in for startling and sometimes devastating revisits.
Okay, I now turn over the conversation to our community here at TKZ. Are you a Downton devotee? Why? What is this series doing so right? 

22 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn From Downton Abbey

  1. Undying devotee, for all the reasons you mention. But here’s the real testimony: My British husband, who refuses to watch costume dramas with me, is hooked, too. He has two ratings for TV and film: “good” and “poo”. He says Downton Abbey is “really good.”

  2. I’m a total geek over it. So is my husband. This series is amazing for all the reasons you mentioned, particularly the complex characters and solid writing, but there was a follow up series they introduced that totally fell flat for me. Can’t recall the name of it, but the time period didn’t interest me as much and it seemed to follow a contrived Downton Abbey formula.

    There is something fascinating about British aristocracy and the society classes that holds my attention, but apparently not stories set in the mid 1900s.

  3. Great post. I love Downton Abbey, and a benefit of living in Europe is that I’ve already seen season 3. Even my in-laws watch it with Flemish subtitles. Great fiction transcends culture.

  4. I’ve had this series in my Netflix queue for ages and never watched it. This is the third blog post I’ve read about it in recent weeks. Looks like blog-fate is urging me to start viewing. Thanks for the heads-up on what to tune into.

  5. Now you’re talking, Jim. Writers can learn much from this series. I’ve been in love with all things British since I spent a semester at Oxford my senior year of college and ultimately that’s why I decided to write in the Regency era. I blogged briefly about Downton this week too:
    You covered the reasons why this series is so compelling very well. I love the fact that even the aristocracy with all its glamor and wealth have an underbelly of vulnerability. And the servant class has a nobility all its own.

  6. Murder, passion, secrets from the past, what’s not to like? I just wish the seasons weren’t so short. Sometimes that makes the narrative a bit choppy, whereas a slower pace with more episodes would allow for more playing out of the plot threads.

  7. Interesting that you mention romance being the most popular genre. I’m currently writing a mystery in which the main character is being chased by the bad guys almost from Chapter One. It makes it hard to weave in romance and have her take time away from the suspense to fall in love. Any advice from fellow authors who have tackled this dilemma?
    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  8. Good analysis James. I’m a big Anglophile but this series might be the best I’ve seen. After Downton went on hiatus, I tried to watch “Brideshead Revisited” again but sadly it didn’t hold up. Yet Downton, for all the reasons you cite, is enthralling.

    One other thing it can teach novelists: Its marvelous sense of place. Yes, wartime is a natural for drama but the fictional world Downton creates is palpable. You, as a viewer, inhabit it along with the characters.

    That’s something I try for in very book I’ve written. Setting as character.

  9. Victoria, that’s a great question, and reminded me of the worst part of one of the best thrillers. I’m talking Three Days of the Condor. Love that film for so many reasons. BUT, the gratuitous and totally unbelievable “love scene” in the middle was terrible, stuck in there no doubt by focus grouped studio heads. Puh-leeze.

    The “falling in love” part can be implied in the action. It doesn’t have to be expressed until the story is almost over. While characters can’t really “pause” when death is on the line, they can have competing emotions.

  10. Kris, that’s a great big one. Absolutely, the setting (the village, the house, the countryside) plays a major role.

    “Setting as character” is a great tip for new writers.

    We ought also to mention the superb acting.

  11. Great post, as always Jim.

    Love the series.

    Your mention of nobility appealing to humanity is spot on, and I feel that surface in my characters when I’m writing, and in my favorite heroes and heroines in fiction.

    Love that Huey Lewis prophecy as well.


  12. He’ll always be “Kilwille” to me.
    All I can say is, “Good going!”

    And his villains are great characters, too. Complex and human — except for O’Brien,the lady’s maid. She’s gotta fall outta window or something, before this one ends. She’s right up there with Livia Drusilla.

  13. Thanks for the heads-up, Jim! I don’t watch a lot of TV and just heard about the popularity of this show about a week ago, and was told I MUST watch it! I guess I’ve got some catching up to do!

  14. Victoria, romantic suspense authors blend romance and suspense all the time. In your story, it would depend on the role of the hero. Does the heroine have to work with him to elude/foil the bad guys? Even rapid pacing needs some down time, which is when the relationship scenes come in. Plus there’s a built-in external conflict in a thriller, but what internal struggles keep your couple apart?

    I don’t see them stopping to have a sex scene, but they can learn to rely on each other and appreciate the assets each person brings to their struggle. Good topic for another post.

  15. Devotee despite some of the show’s sillier moments (no spoilers here though so I won’t mention them!) I think the characters keep me interested, that and the good old fashioned love stories:)

  16. If there is anyone out there who does not believe that the Universe operates from Jim’s mouth to God’s ear, Amazon.com is offering the limited edition boxed set of “Downton Abbey: Seasons 1 & 2” for sixty percent (60%) off as their Gold Box Deal of the Day Monday, 12/3 only. That’s around $25.00.

  17. My husband and I are new recruits to Downton Abbey. After hearing so much about it at a writers’ conference, I went home and ordered Seasons 1 and 2 to get ready for Season 3. We are so hooked! We DVR it so if we don’t understand something, we can play it back. It captures our interest to sit spellbound for an hour and then makes us hunger for more when it ends. I sure would like to write books like that!

  18. The hooks in each episode have me at the edge of my recliner.

    In season one, episode one, the camera follows ‘the letter’ around the house. The response of each character to the news inside is positively titillating. We, sitting on the couch and holding a snack midway to our mouth, want to know more than anything what is in that letter.

    Every single episode begins with movement. Something riveting will surely take place behind the next partially opened door or tilting teacup.

  19. The truth of the characters is what has impressed me. How they dive in & out of admirable and less than becoming characteristics with the situations that they are put in gives the storytelling great depth!
    BTW…no spoilers here other than to say we’ve seen season 3 & it will be worth the wait for those in the US!

  20. The bad characters aren’t all bad… Love that Lady Grantham’s maid, had the change of evil heart that showed her humanity so simply when she said to herself, ‘This is not who you are, Sarah O’Brien’.

  21. After I read this blog post I asked my wife if she would like to give Downton Abbey a try. We watched it streaming via Amazon Prime video. The first episode made us want to watch the second. The second episode got us hooked! We watched the first two seasons in three days. It’s wonderful. Thanks!

    Also, I am currently reading your “Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict and Suspense,” and enjoying it very much. My next book should be even better than my last. 😉

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