What Authors Can Learn from Downton Abbey
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?