For anyone who loves good drama, few television series deliver it as well as Downton Abbey, which ended its third season this year.
Any writer who watched the series will tell you there’s more than three ways it can improve your writing. But who wants to read a blog post that long? Let’s distill them into three indispensable elements of good story with a few subpoints:
A Rich Cast of Characters
From His Lordship, Earl of Grantham, to Daisy the kitchen maid, every character is well defined. Even the darker characters draw you in. You can’t wait to hate them.
How does Julian Fellowes, creator of the series, achieve such a rich tapestry of character? In a word, variety. Regardless of the size of your cast—even if just one character—provide your audience with a broad range of characteristics.
Here’s four ways Downton Abbey creates variety within individual characters as well as across the cast:
Bodily Appearance – Most writers attend to the main features (hair, eyes, height, weight, etc.). One great way to achieve variety is to give some characters an outstanding bodily feature. In my contemporary novel, Moe, the main character (by that name) is a dwarf.
It’s possible to achieve variety within the same character by simply describing a change in one trait. At Downton, we see this done well in Anna. As a maid, her hair is up. In intimate scenes with her husband, Mr. Bates, it’s down, with a striking difference to her appearance.
Dress – You gotta love those folks in costuming. At Downton, even the kitchen staff is done to perfection. And I love to see Maggie Smith waltz on the set as the Dowager Countess. She oozes aristocracy.
The best way to achieve variety here, individually and across the cast, is to dress your characters for function. When their function changes, change their dress. And a nice trick for variety is to mis-dress them for a function.
After Branson the chauffeur marries Lady Sybil, he’s expected to sit at table for the family meals. At first, he refuses to change his dress to suit the requirements of his new position in this aristocratic family. But when he finally dons different dress, his character changes—a nice subtle shift that’s deftly handled.
Speech patterns – On stage and screen, this is a major component of character. It’s the same on the written page. You achieve it primarily through the three Ps: Pitch, Power, and Pacing. But a very powerful speech tool is dialect.
Incredible variety moves in and out of the scenes at Downton Abbey: high and low-born Yorkshire, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and good old mid-plains American.
While that’s easier to achieve before a live audience or camera, it’s not impossible on the page. The most important factors in writing dialect are the choice of vocabulary and how you arrange the words on the page. Pacing is paramount, but by all means, don’t overdo dialect.
The best way to learn dialect is to listen to recordings or visit the area where your story is set. Listen carefully for the cadence, and note words that are used often. I made a trip to Scotland to research this for Moe. If what my readers tell me is true, all that note-taking paid off.
Posture / Gait – At Downton, both the Dowager Countess and Mr. Bates walk with canes, but they have distinct gaits. They stand and sit differently, too. And this is more than a simple gender difference. One is an aristocrat, the other is not. When describing how your character sits, stands, or moves, bear in mind not only their gender, but their status in life—or what they’d like folks to perceive as their status.
As a dwarf, Moe has difficulty maintaining pace with taller men. It becomes a symbol of how he sees himself—someone who can’t keep up.
A Sensual Feast
How do people live in such places as Downton Abbey? I’d be walking around all the time, marveling at everything. The set designer, cinematographer, and sound crew have done an outstanding job of giving the senses a feast. Writers who avoid this challenge rob their readers of real enjoyment.
But there’s a fine line between entertaining and overwhelming the audience. As a writer, don’t go Rococo. Cinematographers can get away with it, but on the page, less is more. Give enough detail for the reader to experience the setting, and then leave what remains to the imagination.
Where’s the line? It’s constantly moving. To determine whether you’ve achieved the proper balance of detail and variety, test your scenes out on a variety of readers.
Give and Take
Attend any current writing conference and you’ll hear this as the essence of plot: give your character something he/she wants, and then take it—or something else valuable—away.
Doing that effectively will create the tension you need and move a story forward, but it’s not the only way. Another useful tool is a strong give-and-take dialogue session between two characters. Not only can you move the plot forward, you can add depth to your characters.
This is done quite effectively in Downton Abbey between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), mother of the new heir to Downton. Sparks fly almost every time those two characters are in the same room. And they do it marvelously, especially Maggie Smith, who usually gets the best lines.
If you haven’t seen Downton Abbey, I hope I haven’t ruined it for you with too many spoilers. And if you’re a writer who gets inspiration from watching a good movie or play, then I highly recommend the series to you.
And don’t fret over whether you can compete with the stage or screen. I can assure you, after a lengthy stint in the theater, few productions beat a good book. Nothing compares to a well-fed imagination.
What have you seen lately that has inspired and/or improved your writing? If you’ve seen Downton Abbey, please add your insights in the comments. Many thanks.