Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Make Your Novel As Compelling As Downton Abbey

by Kasey Tross

Mary and Matthew. Because if I have an excuse to use a photo of Dan Stevens, I will.
Photo from this article in which Dan Stevens mourns the lost art of romance. *sigh*

I am an analyzer. When I find something I like, it’s not enough for me just to enjoy it- I feel a need to analyze it and pinpoint exactly WHY I like it, and once I figure that out, I want to know HOW to do it myself (this is why half of the meals I serve at my house are replicas something I’ve eaten at a restaurant). Ever since I started writing more seriously it’s gotten way worse- I can’t watch movies or TV without saying, “Hey, how did they do that?” 

And so it is with Downton Abbey*. I found myself enraptured with the sparkling gowns, the polished furnishings, the handsome men and elegant women, but it was more than that- the show seems to have this quality, this magnetic power that, unlike the majority of pop culture, is not fueled by sex, violence, crude humor, or supernatural elements (although in many ways the culture of early 20th century England does feel a bit supernatural at times). 

So what is it about this show? As per my usual fashion, I broke it down. And now, dear reader, I am blessing you with my findings.**

1. Everybody has a secret. For real. EVERYBODY. The butler, the baker, the candlestick maker. This is nothing new- it’s a well-known trick of the storytelling trade to give every character a secret, but I also noticed that in this show there are two kinds of secrets: the Sword Secrets and the Shield Secrets.

Sword Secrets- These are the stuff blackmail is made of. These are the secrets that can cut someone down and pretty much destroy their life. They are wielded by both the noble and the not-so-noble, both as offensive weapons and defensive weapons. In short, everybody in the show is armed. Which makes for some really wonderful nail-biting conditions.

Thomas has a whole arsenal of these at any given time- you can pretty much think of him as a black market arms dealer as far as Sword Secrets go. Edith’s attack on her own sister with a Sword Secret set a whole storyline in motion, the repercussions of which were felt for several seasons.

Shield Secrets- These are the secrets kept to protect, and I think these secrets can be even more powerful to the narrative than the Sword Secrets, because they introduce an element of sacrifice and demonstrate genuine love in a way that is far more compelling than mere romantic confessions. Shield Secrets are a perfect example of how so often it’s the words that are not said which say more than those spoken aloud. 

Anna’s traumatic experience is a prime example of this- she keeps it a painful secret out of love for Mr. Bates, because she knows that the consequences of telling him could lead to his ultimate downfall, and she loves him too much to risk losing him, so she endures silently, creating an emotional gulf between them. 

The beautiful “upstairs” version of a Shield Secret was when Mary chose to keep silent about her feelings for Matthew because she couldn’t bear to wreck the happiness he had found with Lavinia. That revealed something very selfless and noble in her character that might not have come out otherwise.

2. Complex characters. At the outset of the show, it becomes clear that there are some characters who are just flat-out, downright evil. *cough*THOMAS*cough* There are other characters who are obviously generally kind and good, and then a few more who fall somewhere in the middle. 

Yet as the show goes on, we see those evil characters demonstrating these periodic little hints of goodness, so as much as we want to hate them completely, we just can’t. Despite all of the horrible, terrible, lowdown things Thomas has done to the characters we love, it would still hurt a little bit if he died. He's still awful, but the tiny glimmers of humanity in him make us love him anyway. Same with O’Brien. SO annoying.

And then you’ve got the good ones- and even the “good” ones you’re not so sure about all the time. Lady Cora Grantham is an endearing mother figure, but then periodically she says or does something that just makes you say, “Wow, that was really rude.” And yet, it is still in keeping with her character because of the time and culture she lives in. Lady Mary consistently struggles with pride and the internal tug-of-war between what she should do and what she wants to do, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions. Which brings me to...

3. Obstacles- This show is chock full of obstacles, and watching to see how the characters handle the obstacles is really the meat of the show, and it provides that gripping element because the characters are so multifaceted, you’re never quite certain what they’re going to do. The “right” decision might seem clear to the viewer, but we know that the character hasn’t always taken the high road in the past, so we are left wondering which path they’re going to choose- have they learned from their mistakes or will they crash and burn again?

In other situations, the right decision isn’t so clear: characters are either left between a rock and a hard place or provided with several murky choices with no clear right answer. In those situations the viewer can’t help but ask themselves what they might do in a similar situation, and then they can’t help but stay tuned to find out what happens next and whether it was really the right choice.

The best thing about these obstacles is that the majority of the time, the obstacles arise as a result of a character’s decision. On occasion problems just drop in from outside sources, but most of the issues are a direct repercussion of a character’s actions, making the characters crucial to the narrative, and making them forces for action (rather than being acted upon), which makes them significantly more interesting (I think).

Okay, that’s not all I’ve figured out, but that’s all for now. The show has many more elements I could get into- let’s not forget how the acting can play such an important role in a television show or movie as well. None of this would work with lousy acting, so let’s applaud those moments when Matthew makes a sideways comment to Mary that on the surface sounds innocuous, but obviously means, “I am still in love with you,” and glances down and away and then back at her again for just a split second with the briefest of smiles wanting her to understand but not wanting to give himself away either. And then she looks down too and smiles, and then just for a second their eyes meet, and then they both glance away and take deep breaths.

Downton Abbey: 'There’s a wedding, a funeral and a sex scene. Guess which one I’m in... - Downton Abbey's Matthew Crawley (Dan  Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery)

Gotta love it. Seriously, though- watching well-acted TV shows and movies is a great way to see what feelings look like to help you write them into your work. 

(By the way, I’ve broken Matthew & Mary's relationship down too, in all of its convoluted glory, and maybe next time I’ll dissect that for you.)

Now it’s time to study your own WIP and ask yourself:

1. Does anybody have a secret? Is it a Sword Secret or a Shield Secret?

2. Are your characters 2-D or do they have aspects of both good and bad in their personalities? How are these qualities demonstrated?

3. Are the obstacles in your story a direct result of characters’ choices? How do the characters’ actions further the narrative, either in a positive or negative direction?

There. Now go Downtonize your story. 

*Author’s Note: I am not watching Downton Abbey this month, as per my usual “Fast From the World” each January. So don’t you dare comment with a spoiler, because I haven’t seen any new episodes yet. ‘Kay? ‘Kay. And don’t talk to me on February 1st, either. Because I’m going to be...busy.

**For another sampling of my expert story analysis, check out this post: On Falling in Love and Robin Hood


  1. Insightful & informative blog post -- thanks for sharing this!

  2. excellent post, Kasey. Really good analysis. I love Downton too - Anna is my favorite. And I'm with you, O'Brien and Thomas are the worst!



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