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.
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.
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?