The five things I’ve learned about writing from watching Downton Abbey

Posted in Blogs, Literary

January 8, 2015

It’s the beginning of 2015; for some of you that means renewed exercise or healthier eating practices. Or maybe you’re planning on finally writing that book or screenplay. For me it is all about the return of my favorite British period drama: Downton Abbey, which follows an upper crust household now in the 1930s.


Downton Abbey cast (photo courtesy of the author)

So, as we stand on the crisp precipice of 2015—I thought I would share with you five things that the “world according to Downton” has taught me about my craft.

Lesson One: It’s all about the preparation.

With a swish of her hand, her ladyship announces there will be a dinner party and, as if by magic, two weeks later—there it is. But that magic—as all of us adamant watchers know—takes days, if not weeks, of painstaking preparations from the folks downstairs.

There are carpets to be rolled up, silver to be polished, flowers to be arranged, attire to be pressed, bread to raise and pheasants to pluck. Not to mention table settings that have to be measured—because God forbid that a dessert spoon be half an inch too far to the left! I get tired just watching it.

But, this is also an important lesson for me about writing. Seamless writing takes a great deal of work. Researching, reading and rewriting can take months if not years. In my last book I rewrote some sentences not once but 30 to 40 times until they flowed as seamlessly as a Downton Ball.

Lesson Two: Know your place in the scheme of things.

In the British class system, everybody knew his or her place. Someone from upstairs never dallied with one from downstairs, and if one did— as a chauffeur did in the first season—that person never really fit upstairs or downstairs again. I’m not saying it’s right; it’s just the way it was.

As writers, I think it is important to know our voice in this world. Know your strengths and stick to writing from them. I’m not saying you can’t pick another genre to write from occasionally, but on the whole, in a world with so much coming at us from every online direction, it is important for young writers to brand themselves early and write to their strengths. There is always a chance later to try something new; at least then your readership will know it is new for you, because they know what “you” means.

Lesson Three: Know who you are but be adaptable.

In this week’s episode, the Butler Carson uttered the ominous words, “I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on. That everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule over the next few years.” He is, of course, feeling the spirit of that decade; along with the now-bobbed hair styles and shorter dress lines, a new and modern approach to living will, in fact, leave many of his ways back in the last century.

So the next lesson from Downton is: as writers we need to know who we are but also need to be flexible and ready to change. Pieces you wrote in the 1970’s may need to be modernized to bring whatever important message you have to a brand new audience. Don’t get stuck back in dogma or antiquated thinking and language. If you want your work to be poignant and relevant to this generation, you have to get hip to this. Dig?

Lesson Four: It’s all about the characters.

Julian Fellowes, the creator and screenwriter of Downton, has done a superb job of creating characters we care about—people who are always growing, yet staying the same. The test of great characters for me is knowing them so well that when a story problem arises you know who is going to react. The key to really good writing is knowing this, yet constantly being surprised by the direction the character goes with that information. There is a huge difference between this and knowing exactly what that character is going to do or say. The key for us as writers is to keep notching it up, so the audience connects but is also oblivious to the next twist or turn of the story.

Lesson Five: Create work that is timeless                                                        

The stories that last the tests of time have universal themes that we all can relate to. There will always be room in our lives for stories that challenge us and connect us. We basically all struggle with the same issues. In Downton, they have their issues too. But, while Lady Mary is contemplating an advantageous marriage as she carries the pressure of continuing her family’s place in the world, the maid downstairs wants to learn math in order to not feel stupid. Worlds apart, they are both wrestling with the same issues: self-worth and independence. Even though their problems are antiquated to us in our modern world nearly 100 years on, we still identify with the needs of these characters. As a fellow writer I encourage you towards writing to timeless themes.

So if writing is one of your goals in 2015 I suggest that watching Downton Abbey may be a good place to go for inspiration… like we needed a reason.

Have a wonderful New Year everyone!

Suzanne Kelman is an awarding-winning screenwriter of a screenplay that has recently been optioned.


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