April 11, 2014

Writing Tips We Can Learn from Downton Abbey - Part One

By Linda Wood Rondeau 

I’ve never been a fan of serial drama. When St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues hit the airwaves, I had a hard time with leaving the characters in such awful straits for a whole week. Maybe the more modern dramas like Castle re-shaped my tolerance for the night-time soap format.

I suppose there’d been a lot of chatter about the British series storming the country, but I was clueless until someone gifted me with a DVD of Season 1 and 2. By the second episode my husband and I were hooked. We couldn’t wait to watch season three. The more I watched, the more I wondered. What makes this show so successful?

I’ve seen a lot of shows tank even with great actors.

In most cases of successful television, as in Downton Abbey, the appeal is multi-faceted.

Jim Carter (Carson) stated that while in Los Angeles he was approached by a woman fan who said, “Downton Abbey and your performance make me want to live a better life.” He hadn’t thought of the show in terms of religious significance. Yet, there is no arguing, it has profound resonance with its viewers. We writers can learn from that resonance.

Universal Theme

“The sun is rising behind Downton Abbey, a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park. So secure does it appear that it seems as if the way of life it represents will last for another thousand years. It won’t.” This is the main thrust of the series, says its creator Julian Fellowes.           

Like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, Lord Grantham, a man of good moral character committed to his way of life, must cope with three daughters and a wife who do not see the world through the same set of glasses. The generational conflict intensifies through the eyes of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, who is through and through an Englishwoman. Convention vs. forced change is a common theme in literature and is a great tool for the development of conflict in a story. Whether the convention is a political system or a family tradition, we identify with both the character who wants to be free from expectation and the loving institution that seeks to preserve a way of life. The theme is as old as the parable of the prodigal son.

The Story’s Elements support the central theme

A good work of fiction will use the elements of story to support its theme, and Downton Abbey does not disappoint in this regard. “I adore Downton Abbey,” says Yvonne Lehman, author of Hearts that Survive—A Novel of the Titanic.  “Love the British accent, the times, the clothing, the difference in the aristocracy and working class, and yet the sameness in emotions, hopes, and dreams.”

Kristy Wedge Cambron states that she loves the “intoxicating mixture of expertly written characters both upstairs and down, the ever-present storyline of history in every episode, and the sweeping set/costume design.”

In Downton Abbey, all story elements work together to support the idea of class struggle and changing mores. 

Part Two of my post on Monday, April 14th, will cover Setting, Characters, Plot and Dialogue. This weekend can you write an outline for Season Four’s opening episode in keeping with Downton charm and spirit?
Linda Wood Rondeau is a native of Central New York, she graduated from North Syracuse High School and later Houghton College. She moved to Northern New York where she met and married Steve Rondeau, her best friend in life, and managed a career in human services before tackling professional writing. After thirty-four years she and her husband have relocated to Jacksonville, Florida to start a new adventure...leaving rural America to live in a city of one million. Of course, the more favorable temperatures allow her to follow another great passion--golf. Rondeau's romantic suspense, The Other Side of Darkness, is the winner of the 2012 Selah Award for best first novel. Her romance, It Really IS a Wonderful Life is already a best seller. Joining her contemporary works is her first non-fiction, I Prayed for Patience/God Gave Me Children. Her paranormal suspense, Days of Vines and Roses is now available in both book and ebook format. Find her at and and

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