Deconstructing Downton Abbey – Lessons from the Hit Show

stift-melk-melk-abbey-1426532-mThe first time I heard about Downton Abbey was a little over a year ago. We’d gone out to eat with my father and stepmother, and they waxed poetic about the show for a good part of the meal. They’d been followers since its inception, and Season 3 was at hand. I’d read an interview with Julian Fellowes, its writer, in Writer’s Digest earlier that week, and my husband had heard an interview with some of the cast members on his way to work that morning. But it was the personal recommendation from my father that spurred me to action.

I have to tell you, I was skeptical. PBS? Um, okay. A historical? Dustier than the Sahara. Masterpiece Theater? Zzzzz….

Despite my reservation, my husband and I decided to give Downton Abbey a try that weekend. Rent one episode–starting with Season One–just to see what all the hoopla was about. Just. One. Episode.

Little did I know, Downton Abbey is televised crack.

That night, we stayed up until 1 a.m. watching back-to-back episodes we bought off Apple TV for a hefty chunk of change. It was that good. Even my husband, a man who worships Will Farrell comedies, loved the show. We were hooked from the opening scene. I then began to see a number of books in bookstores with a decidedly Downton theme. Big pub had noticed the cult hit as well.

Cycle forward a year… Downton Abbey Christmas ornaments, Downton Abbey cookies, Downton Abbey Puzzles — the list goes on. And just this week, a friend of mine asked if any of us watched Downton Abbey. If it was worth the bother. You already know my answer, don’t you?

So what, as writers, can we learn from Downton Abbey? Let’s take a look…

Lesson #1: Write for a “modern” audience.

Julian Fellowes is a genius, folks, and he “gets” the modern viewing audience. In the Writer’s Digest article, he said that today’s media consumer has a shorter attention span than ever before. So he packs a lot of scenes in each episode, making each one very short so we don’t linger too long on any one character. And there are lots of characters. Even if you haven’t seen a show, one look at the promo poster tells you as much. While the show carries weight in many other departments (setting, social commentary, costumes, witty dialogue, etc.), it’s the short, punchy, emotionally-charged scenes paired with a cast of well-drawn, fully dimensional characters that, in my opinion, makes the show such a success. A thinking man’s soap opera, if you will.

Writing for the modern audience can and should be its own post. But here’s my takeaway: when writing a book, the plot should move, baby, at the speed of sound, and the characters should be so real that the reader forms a relationship with them. Yes, yes, yes – most of you will say that you’re doing this already. But are you really? How long are your chapters? How deep are your characters? How many plates are you spinning in the air at once? Whatever you’re doing, double it or triple it, and you may come close to Julian Fellowes. But here’s a caveat: things that work on TV don’t always work in books. I think too many characters and too many plot lines can be detrimental to a book’s success. It’s easier to keep up with a hundred tangents in a visual medium stretched out over four or five seasons than in a written work.

Lesson #2: Word of mouth is king, but a smart marketing plan is queen.

The folks behind Downton Abbey cranked up that marketing/PR machine last year just in time for Season Three. Radio interviews, magazine articles, print ads, etc. Yet it was my father’s recommendation that actually drove me to action. But understand this: had my husband and I not been exposed, at least marginally, to the concept of the show beforehand, word of mouth may not have been as effective. It was the one-two punch of marketing plus recommendation in a short time frame that got us to the television. Concentrated exposure (and a handful of supportive readers) can work wonders.

Lesson #3: A series (or book) may take time to gather steam.

I’ve got Book One of a series out now (Doom & Gloom). And while it did well (tons of great blog reviews!), you’re not reading about me on the cover of Writer’s Digest. Yet Downton Abbey gives me hope. For the first two seasons, I didn’t even hear about the show. Not even on my radar. Now it’s my “don’t miss” event every week. And look at my friend, the one I mentioned in the intro. Despite the marketing storm last year, it took a marketing flood this year to reach her. Not sure whether she’ll like the show, but I bet she’s going to watch it tonight. Media is not immune to the “early adopter” bell curve, so think about your book or series in these terms.

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(Everett M. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations)

With regard to Downton, my father would be an early adopter (or innovator), I would be in the early majority, and my friend would be in the late majority. For its final season next year, there will be many laggards yet to come. Sometimes these cycles happen quickly, and sometimes they happen over several years. You never know when success may strike. For Downton, it happened mid-series.

If you haven’t watched an episode of Downton Abbey, I urge you to do so, if only for the lessons it provides. Marvel at the writing, the characters, the zippy plot and let them inspire you. To the other millions of viewers who’ve already joined the Downton cult, I leave you with this:

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Your turn, Downton fans. What do you think about my analysis? Have any other insight from the show that may help fellow writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Downton Abbey – Lessons from the Hit Show

  1. Good post! Got me thinking about it in a different light. Also got me thinking about other shows and books. I feel I may be a laggard on the whole Breaking Bad wagon. At least I am an early adopter on Downton Abbey!

    Keep up the good work

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