What Authors Can Learn from Downton Abbey

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Raise your hands all you who block out your Sunday evening to watch Downton Abbey.  Or the next night to watch it digitally. It’s a phenomenon worth exploring to find out why it has viewers in 100 countries and what insights authors can apply to their own writing.

PBS announced that last Sunday’s episode of Downton Abbey rated second only to the Super Bowl per Nielsen Overnights data. From an author’s perspective, we know sales tend to diminish from book 1 to books 2 and 3 in a series. But Downton Abbey is defying the odds. Season 3’s first five episodes were 72% above the first five episodes of Season 2 according to Nielsen Fast National data. And that percentage doesn’t take into account digital viewers. The number of unique visitors who went to the Masterpiece website to view Season 3’s first episode was up 53% from the first episode of Season 2. Mobile visitors were up 174%. It is the top-rated PBS dramatic production of all time.

Why? Let’s begin with the more obvious reasons.

We have a natural curiosity about the lifestyle of British aristocracy. It’s delicious to peek into the daily goings-on of English privileged society to see how the other side lives. A favorite of Violet’s many well-timed one-liners is, “What is a week-end?” Producers hired a historian to advise and oversee that every detail of language, clothing (those beautiful dresses), hairstyles, carriage and decorum is authentic and consistent.

Insight: Imagine showing or describing details as vividly in your novel or nonfiction book. Searching until you find the perfect word is worth all the time it takes. Don’t settle for anything less than that in your manuscript. Debbie Macomber’s book One Perfect Word is a helpful resource.

The casting is superb. Can you imagine anyone other than Maggie Smith playing the role of Violet? Can anyone do better than Elizabeth McGovern at tilting her head as she smiles demurely in her role as coy Lady Cora? Or the deep-voiced Jim Carter as dignified Mr. Carson.

Insight: This series offers great examples for character development. Watch for seemingly minor details of mannerisms, a raised eyebrow, downward glance, fidgeting that give you ideas for revealing hints into a character’s emotional struggles.

Although the story moves slowly, as most soap operas do, each scene has a powerful moment, and they are short, giving the effect that the pace is moving along quickly, which keeps viewers engrossed.

Insight: Shorter chapters are more desirable these days. Busy lifestyles have affected readers and made them impatient with lengthy discourse. For nonfiction writers, shorter chapters allow you to hone in on one important point succinctly, making it easier for readers to remember and leaving them with the lasting impression they learned a lot from your book.

But there has to be more to Downton Abbey’s success. All of us can think of other dramas that have stood out in the areas I’ve mentioned. So I drilled down deeper for clues to discern additional possible characteristics and trends.

The timing may be a factor. Could it be that viewers—and readers—are becoming weary of violence, steamy sex scenes, and crass dialogue? There’s enough of that going on in real time. Has the trend to be realistic been taken too far? Is there a craving for civility, dignity, goodness, and morality? Who isn’t cheering for Anna and Mr. Bates? They are examples of genuine goodness and pure motives no matter how many obstacles they encounter. Awareness of respectful attitudes and communication among and between aristocrats and servants is so pervasive it’s unavoidable.

Are people hungry to be lifted to these higher qualities rather than being drawn down to levels beneath where they want to live life? If Downton Abbey’s phenomenal success is any indication, maybe so. The producer has noted that younger as well as older age groups are tuning in.

Insight: This possibility parallels what I’m hearing from publishers. One nonfiction editor I spoke with recently said their group is looking for personal journeys, especially men’s, which inspire. Pay attention to trends. Keep your finger on the pulse of your audience by asking your social media friends and followers intuitive questions.

What draws you to Downton Abbey? What else do you think contributes to its success? What factors you can apply to your own manuscript, even if it’s nonfiction?

74 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    Mary, I love your question- “Are people hungry to be lifted to these higher qualities rather than being drawn down to levels beneath where they want to live life?”

    I think this is the heart of our love affair with DA, and also why Amish fiction is such a trend. Amish fiction and DA are very different from one another, yet each touch that cord you just touched—a hunger for something wholesome, simple, and different than our worldview/culture/media currently offers.

  2. I would pay, in our more healthy Canadian dollar 😉 vast amounts of cash to see Maggie Smith read a phone book!
    Can you hear her?
    “Keeley, oh what a lovely name, it reminds me of Howard Keel, did you evah hear him sing? Such a treashah.”
    Then she’d tip here head just so and smile.

    (Her son, Toby Stephens, played Mr Rochester in the 2006 BBC adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’)

    Last week’s episode in which The Dowager conspires with the unwilling, but kind-hearted doctor, to fix Cora and Robert’s ailing marriage is brilliant. She is, after all, a mother. And she does love her family.
    And oh my, the scene The Dowager staggers in grief and then carries on? Maggie Smith can act with just her face.

    It’s so many things with DA, but in my humble (and completely correct at all times)opinion, a majority of people are tiring of the banal and long for order, for civility and to spend a few moments in a time when what one wore to dinner meant something. When men held chairs and merely touching someone spoke volumes. When the colour of the table linen could have one tossed from proper society.
    Or the style of suit? “I’m sorry, I thought you were a waiter.”

    I think knowing what is expected of one, and then learning to be oneself despite of the constraints makes for enough conflict and drama if written well.
    In my MS, I take a Native American warrior and change the course of his life, so much so that what society presumes is fact, is 180 degrees from what is the core of the man. The heroine looks like what one would expect an heiress to be, but in fact, is as raw and ruined as an animal, weary of and broken by a long and difficult hunt.

    As in DA, and any other well written drama, the essence is to bend and twist the adage of what one sees, is what one gets.

    • Jennifer, those two Maggie Smith moments you mention are so wonderful. Mary mentions minor details and mannerisms, and that’s what I feel we see here. The Dowager is the matriarch of the Grantham family. She is a tough old bird most of the time. But when you see her grab the pillar for strength as she walks across the foyer after Lady Sybil’s death, or as she clasps the mantle in her home having brought Cora and Robert together to share their grief, you see a side to her she only escapes when she can’t control it, giving viewers a peek into the whole woman.

      • Let’s try that again: …you see a side to her that only escapes when she can’t control it…

      • So much can be said in the slight movement of an eyebrow, or the clenching of a fist. Our Queen, Elizabeth the Second, is legendary in her slight indication of disapproval or discontent. If she begins to twist her wedding ring, people in the know are aware instantly that she is basically NOT HAPPY.
        Thankfully, she never does it around me. 🙂

    • “I think knowing what is expected of one, and then learning to be oneself despite of the constraints makes for enough conflict and drama if written well.” This is a thought-provoking insight, Jennifer. I’m working on a couple difficult characters now, and you may have given me a key. Thanks!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good point, Jennifer about a character. “Learning to be oneself despite the constraints” is realistic. And as you add, if written well, that conflict will be enough to capture the reader.

    • Elaine Faber says:

      Your reply is as charming as the original post. How nice it would be to find more quality TV viewing that sets good examples for children and for social behaviour, such as we enjoyed in the 60’s. Perhaps some of this type of programing (DA) and the response it receives will clue in Hollywood that we are sick of disrespectful children, promiscuous first dates and violent programs where 9 people are gunned down in the first 15 minutes. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’ve wondered if part of its popularity is because it was different and well done.

    The story began in 1912. There hasn’t been much done with that era, other than Titanic stories. And while it did begin with the Titanic sinking, that wasn’t the focus.

    So to me, the lesson is do something unique and do it really, really well.

  4. Lisa says:

    I love these thoughts. I often think of my chapters as scenes in films. What better example than the writing and characters of Downton Abbey.

  5. I have wondered this myself: What makes DA so popular? Both my husband and I love it…him for the history, I suppose, and me for the relationships. The storylines are constantly compelling, and you really root for the characters. And just when you want a character (like Thomas) to get his, he goes and shows you another side to himself, and you realize that even villains have reasons to be the way they are. Brilliant, and totally lessons we can carry over into fiction writing.

  6. Jeanne T says:

    Okay, I have a confession to make: I have never watched Downton Abby. We just don’t watch television, other than some sporting events. I will say, though, that everything I have heard about it makes me want to begin watching it. 🙂 I’ve heard it has great character development and it obviously leaves watchers with a hook that makes them want to come back for more the next week.

    Yes, I’m hanging my head in shame right about now at my admission. 🙂

  7. When you called it a soap opera, I think my man card squeezed out a tear.

  8. What a great analysis! Give authors so much to think about. My wife and I have talked about what makes us feel so drawn to DA. So many factors. Every character is real and sympathetic at times, and multidimensional. The acting… magical. Can paper and ink capture that? That’s the gold ring of a writer’s heartbeat: a dream that mostly exceeds the grasp, except for a few golden sentences and paragraphs.

    • Larry says:

      “….a dream that mostly exceeds the grasp, except for a few golden sentences and paragraphs.”

      Indeed! More writers’ should take up short-story writing: when one searches for just the write word, as Mary pointed out, it is a lot easier when one doesn’t have several hundred pages of words to look for the right one for!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Well-placed use of words and phrases: magical, capture, gold ring of a writer’s heartbeat, exceeds the grasp, golden sentences and paragraphs. Impressive, Bill.

  9. I must confess I have not watched “Downton Abbey”–on purpose.

    Right now, I am deep in WWII history while writing Book 2 of my series. I know how distracted I am by history, so it’s best for me to keep with my current time period research. 🙁

    But my Book 3 of the series involves British aristocracy before WWI and therefore, when the time comes to write it, I will fully immerse myself in all those fantastic episodes. I can’t wait!

    Does anyone, besides me, have ADD when it comes to researching multiple time periods? I have to stay honed in on whichever era I am writing or it gets me “out of character” so to speak.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Morgan, I am so glad I’m not the solo member in the “Never Watched DA Club.”

      I don’t blame you for not wanting to immerse yourself in too many eras at once. 🙂 If it was me, I’d be confusing the different historical aspects with each other while writing. That’s not a pretty thing, especially in revisions. 🙂

      • You are so right, Jeanne! It would not be pretty, especially for my already overwhelmed writer’s brain. 😉

        I don’t want all the historical facts and info I’ve soaked up to get muddled with another time. I’m going for authenticity and I need to prove this to my readers. 🙂

        Have a great weekend!

    • I don’t have to worry about staying “in character”, which is a great way of saying it, BTW, since there don’t appear to be very many Native Americans at the Granthams’ house.

      • hehe. True that, Jennifer. You definitely should be safe to watch DA–though I must say a few Native Americans thrown into the mix would surprise the heck out of the viewers.

        TV is all about shock value these days, right?! lol.

        Have a great weekend! 🙂

  10. Larry says:

    While I do not watch DA, Mary, it’s good to know that PBS is at least keeping away from the crud floating around on other networks.

    From what I gather from everyone here, though, it seems that part of the appeal of DA is the standards of quality not only in the production of the show, but of the personal standards that the characters display.

    Above all, the public has become weary of cliche. Perhaps not out of any deep fidelity to the arts……but because they are bored with it.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Larry, that’s probably true, at least in part. But the fact that DA is SO popular and continues to increase in popularity with each season seems indicates there is more to it than boredom with other offerings.

  11. Sarah Thomas says:

    Oh, I HOPE the show is so popular because of it’s civility, goodness and morality! As a matter of fact, the story line with Thomas being tricked into essentially sexually harassing one of the footmen is my least favorite. It’s not genteel. And since Thomas cried over a family member dying, I suppose I dislike him a bit less.

    I do think Downton is a wonderful example of how striving to get every detail right is worth it. I know it’s sometimes tempting to let something go thinking my readers won’t know or an editor will catch it. I say do the research. Mr. Carson would certainly expect nothing less!

    • While I don’t like O’Brien’s motives, I think overall seeing this vulnerable side to Thomas will be good for the character. He has been portrayed as such a selfish, evil guy, but like all good writers, Fellowes shows us that Thomas is more than what we thought.

    • “I do think Downton is a wonderful example of how striving to get every detail right is worth it. I know it’s sometimes tempting to let something go thinking my readers won’t know or an editor will catch it.”

      You are so right, Sarah! I thrive to be detailed and accurate as well and we need to keep each other accountable when we’re thinking, “Oh, the readers will never know…”

    • I though his name was “Cahson”.

      Yes, do the research!! I got nailed on an aspect of my MS that would have truly ruined my reputation, ahem, if I had one, and it wasn’t noticed until yesterday. I should send the deets to my CP’s.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Yes, getting every detail right is key in books or television shows, isn’t it, Sarah? And I love the idea of civility in modern day shows. 🙂

  12. One thing that really jumped out at me, at least in the later seasons (it’s been a few weeks since I watched the first season!), is how nearly each scene ends with a hook. A question is asked or a bit of dialogue is left hanging. My husband gets quite exercised over it. “Why do they do that? I hate it when they do that!” But it makes him keep watching, anxious to come to the scene where the rest of it is played out. Shorter chapters, yes, but ending with a hook to keep the reader engrossed.

  13. Mary, everything you mentioned contributes to the list of reasons I adore Downton Abbey, but for me, it’s all about the story. Julian Fellowes is a divine storyteller. Everything else…the time period, the costumes, the aristocracy, the servants, the desire for a more civil life, the fabulous one-line quips… supports the core, the story.

    I found this quote from a Denver Post article…
    “Fellowes said he took a cue from the American mash-up approach to storytelling perfected in shows like “ER” and “The West Wing,” with stories big and small, sad and funny and “all sort of plotted up together.” The look is period but the energy is “much more modern,” as Fellowes put it.”

    Kind of interesting that Fellowes has been watching American TV to perfect his very British program!

    Anyway, thanks for a great post with much to ponder over a nice cuppa Assam! Happy Friday everyone!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Kathryn, thanks for sharing Fellowes’ interesting quote in Denver Post. “The look is period but the energy is ‘much more modern.'” Something more to ponder as I sip my orange jasmine green tea.

  14. Hand up, I’m a fan!
    I love the English countryside and era of the show.
    I think the family struggles are something everyone today can relate to, especially losing your home. (estate, manor)
    A complex family is fascinating to readers.
    I personally love the setting, fashion, and language!

  15. I am a huge DA fan and have been since season 1. One thing that constantly amazes me about the show is how much of the story is portrayed in simple gestures, facial expressions, and movements. When the Dowager Countess stumbled across the hall, I literally gasped. What a fantastic way to show her inner pain. Absolutely brilliant.

    Another thing I’ve found fascinating is how the following for this show has grown due to simple word of mouth. I’ve seen little or no advertising for it, but every week, there are posts on FB and Twitter–people are talking about in en masse. I think I’ve gotten my entire critique group addicted. What better marketing can there be? And how–as writers–do we accomplish this? Obviously, by writing great stories that catch readers imagination and make them want to tell their friends.

  16. I love the characters and the relationship dynamics between the characters on Downton Abbey. Characters are always of primary importance to me, whether I’m watching a t.v. show or reading a book. Last night, my sister and I discussed a novel that our book club just finished reading. There were no likable characters in the book, no characters who had character. My sister said the book was “well-written” despite the lack of good people for characters. I, on the other hand, don’t care how “interesting” a plot is or how many twists and turns it has, if there are no characters that I, at minimum, respect, I’m not going to keep reading (except for a book club or class).

    Your insight, Mary, about the goodness and dignity of the characters on Downton Abbey, I think, is quite important. With so many “reality” shows reigning on American television for so long, I think audiences are ready for high drama. Once Upon a Time and BBC’s Merlin are two other shows that have become increasingly popular season to season, and I think both shows have things in common with Downton Abbey: characters audiences can feel with and root for as they (the characters) do their best to deal with adversity and to remain good people who care about others. Also, all three shows have characters who grow. Both the characters and the stories are dynamic. Unfortunately, Merlin is ending this season, despite being more popular than ever and being shown in over 180 territories worldwide. The creators attribute this to a five-year story arc, but the more current news is that it has ended due to a main actor deciding not to renew his contract. I am sad to see a television show that held up the ideals of Camelot and that had a portrayed its title character as loving, noble and self-sacrificing end. We definitely need more shows like Merlin and Downton Abbey–and more books as well.

    Have a great weekend! 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine, I’m with you about the characters. I’ve put many a book down for the same reasons.

      Sad to say, I haven’t watched Merlin. But I hope to find it on DVD.

      You have a great weekend too.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      “Also, all three shows have characters who grow. Both the characters and the stories are dynamic.”

      I think that’s the key to characters and stories that readers care about. Flat characters never appeal to me as a reader, and predictable stories are definitely a yawn.

      Merlin’s Season 1 was the best, IMO, but having watched 1-4 on Netflix, I’m now waiting for Season 5. It’s like “24” I suppose even though I never warmed up to 24 but it’s easier to see the story arc if I didn’t have to wait a week to see the next episode.

      I would say that Merlin is in the YA Fantasy genre, but I agree that its episodes appeal to all ages with characters that viewers care about.

      However, they did turn the legend upside down, but to their credit, they never called the series a historical fiction (and Arthur was a legend, after all).

      E.g. in Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” written in the 1400s, Guinever was a princess, daughter of the King who ruled Cameliard (Camelot!). She wasn’t a poor servant or a blacksmith’s daughter. Also, Merlin was an old man when he met Arthur. Mordred was Arthur’s illegitimate son (enough said). Morgana’s father was not Uther at all. And the dragon wasn’t in the book (even though I do like the dragon with his angst).

      But I digress. I think Downtown Abbey, not being based on a well-known legend, has more creative freedom in its scripts, IMO. Merlin’s audience is limited, being a genre fiction.

      Another period drama that has many subtle character mannerisms set just several years after Downton Abbey is the Hercule Poirot series by Agatha Christie. The adaptation is superbly done, with Poirot and Hastings coming to live, from Poirot’s eccentricity about the uneven sizes of his boiled eggs at breakfast, to Hastings fascination with 1920s/1930s fast cars. The language is clean, the plot intelligent, and the scripts properly edited. Every word mattered, and every word counted. Clean writing.

      Same quality work with “Little Dorrit” (Dickens) and “North & South” (Gaskell) TV adaptations. Every word spoken meant something, every action meant something, every character wanted to be cared about. In fact, I think the “North & South” miniseries did a better job than Gaskell’s rambling novel itself, although Gaskell seemed to have echoed Austen here and there.

      Just my two halfpennies…

  17. Micky Wolf says:

    Great post Mary! But then my husband and I are among those millions laughing, crying and nodding along with the fabulous folks who populate DA. For me, the series exemplifies all the qualities of good writing and storytelling. The characters are so well drawn it seems the actors are simply “being”. At the same time, it is clearly evident their attention to developing and refining their craft is significant, manifesting in the wonderfully natural tone and feel of each episode.

    The unfolding experiences and nuances of their daily lives draw you in and keep your undivided attention. Authentic. Real. So fully human–and so lovely to boot! Does it get any better? 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I think you’re spot on, Micky. “…it seems the actors are simply ‘being.'” It does seem every one of the actors is so fully into their role. What an accomplishment. It’s a vivid example why character development is so important in a novel.

  18. My hand is up, too! DA fans may want to read Anne Perry’s five-book WWI series. Her insightful characterizations kept me reading despite her overuse of exclamation points (smile). The first one is titled “No Graves As Yet.”

  19. I could talk DA all day long. I absolutely love it. I haven’t been so drawn to a show since Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. The history is definitely part of the appeal for me, but as a character-driven reader/writer, I focus on how each and every character is being developed.

    I feel part of the appeal, too, can go back to how it is easy to relate to some of these characters despite how different their lives are. Mary is a typical older daughter: fiercely loyal to her father and eager to maintain the traditions that are part of her life. Edith, suffers from middle child syndrome, feeling always forgotten between Mary the favored daughter of her father, and Sybil, Lady Cora’s baby. Sybil, as the youngest seems to have been given more leeway and has developed a bit of a wild streak. It is she who is the first to accept the changing world, especially as it applies to women. As for servants, take Thomas. His sexuality is an obstacle for him, just as it is for some people today. Or Bates. People are still unjustly accused. So, though these people exist in a different era, their troubles can be evergreen.

    I try to do that with my writing, too. Though Amelia lives in the 1870s, she experiences grief over the loss of her parents. She is forced to live with a strict aunt who is more concerned with how she appears to everyone than if she is truly happy. She quarrels with a best friend. These are things that some kids can relate to, so hopefully they relate well to Amelia.

    Thanks for a wonderful post on a snowy day in New England.

  20. Do I block out time for Downton on Sundays? No, becasue I own season 3 (and 1 and 2). I love it that much 🙂

    I think the reason I enjoy the show is that for the most part it is clean. I honestly don’t watch t.v. because I don’t like what is being put in front of my face. But DA is rich in character and drama. I don’t think I could put my finger on why I am drawn to it, but I know I can learn a lot as a writer.

  21. patrice says:

    The characters are incredible. They are so well developed. I’m amazed at how much I care about what happened to some of them. The scenery is good, but I’m a sucker for the lovely dresses the women wear. I will need to check myself into a treatment program if they don’t continue this series for a very long time! 🙂

  22. Mary, I think that we, as writers, can glean a wealth of writing pointers from Downton Abbey.

    Each episode begins with movement (even in the introduction as the camera follows the dog’s backside). This is how our stories, or each scene in our stories, should begin. Internal or external agitation is what captivates a reader. In the case of DA, something riveting will surely take place behind the next partially opened door or tilting teacup.

    I wrote about the draw of Downton Abbey on my blog recently.

    In future, I want to more closely analyze the character traits of the occupants of Downton Abbey, and how we see ourselves in them.

  23. Barbara says:

    A speaker at a writer’s conference I attended gave the advice that every character in a book should think the story is about him or her. That comes to mind as I watch DA, realizing that Fellowes has accomplished that feat to an amazing degree: there are no throw-away characters, there is depth and development–and every character matters. Even characters that have died, linger on in the story. Daisy is changed forever by William; Matthew and Mary are still affected by Lavinia; Lady Sybil is alive in everyone’s heart. No cookie-cutter characters or dull story lines. Like so many others, its my all time favorite. Hurray there will be a season 4!

  24. Well, the historian on staff is actually not doing that great a job. There are major historical errors in every episode, along with a host of minor ones. But unless you’re immersed in writing the period or the one just before you won’t notice.

    That said, even though I do see most of the errors and get ticked off by some of them, the characters keep me coming back. I think Anna and Bates is one of the best romances ever put on film. I LOVE Thomas and O’Brien as partners in crime, and even more as frenemies.

    The characters run the full spectrum. There’s not a single stereotype to be found. They all have problems and issues they have to deal with, and we see how their choices affect their lives and the lives of everyone else in the house. I think it’s the realness of the characters that keeps us coming back.

    Ditto for The Walking Dead. Zombies aren’t for everyone, but there’s a lot to learn about characterization. It’s not just the zombie killing that’s made it the highest rated show EVER on cable TV. It starts back tomorrow in the same time slot as Downton and I’ll be interested to see how Downton holds up in the ratings. The TV’s in our house, though we love Downton, will be on AMC. Because we love Walking Dead more.

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