Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why Downton Abbey Works

I guess I could’ve named this post almost anything: Why Downton Abbey is So Popular, Why Downton Abbey Wows Audiences Everywhere, Why Downton Abbey Soars with Even the Harshest of Critics.  All hold exceptional merit and are, without a doubt, absolutely, 100% true.  Downton Abbey is one of those shows which comes along every once in a blue moon and reaches beyond viewer and critic expectations alike.

Just the other day, I started over season one, getting to know Lord and Lady Grantham again, their wonderfully diverse daughters, Cousin Matthew and his bubbly, sometimes over-the-top mother, and the fleet of servants who all have their own personal issues on top of serving one of the most prominent families in England. Oh, and one mustn’t forget the snooty, often brash and honest-to-a-fault dowager duchess Lady Grantham—the earl’s mother; played by actress Maggie Smith—whose witty one-liners have given the BBC production its rightful thumbs up on both humor and intelligence.

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess

As I was watching, absorbing information I didn’t catch before, immersing myself into the delicious plot and even more delicious characters, something struck me rather hard.  A writing tactic preached by top literary agent and author of The Fire in Fiction Donald Maass.  TENSION ON EVERY PAGE! Mr. Maass proclaims at his workshops and, naturally, in his successful fiction writer’s handbook.  What these four words boil down to is quite simple.  When writing scenes, stringing together sequels, et cetera, a writer must remember the vitality of good tension.  Does this mean a fight scene at every turn?  An argument every other page?  Of course not!  But it does mean a sense of pressure for the reader—a genuine concern for the characters and what will happen next.  Think of it this way:  What makes you keep reading a book?  Why do you turn the page, again and again?  Stay up ‘til the all-hours, because you just have to read this one last chapter?  Tension On Every Page.

Just one ... last ... *yawn* ... chapter.

Downton Abbey, I quickly discovered, follows this bold proclamation to perfection.  Every scene, whether with the servants, the family, outer, less important characters—whomever—smacks of tension.  In one scene, the family sits down to dinner for the first time with the new heir—Matthew Crawley, a solicitor (lawyer) and 3rd cousin to Lord Grantham—and just when all seems to be going well, if a little awkward, the eldest daughter brings up a book she’s been reading on Andromeda.  Naturally, she does not expect Mr. Crawley to be well-read, as he is middle class (the horror!) and cannot even hold his knife like a gentleman. In other words, she is setting him up for the fall and, ultimately, utter embarrassment.  But he surprises her with his knowledge of the story, leaves her at such a loss for words, the other family members nearly choke on their gourmet meal.

This builds on the initial spark of tension between Mary and Matthew, one which goes on through the course of the season and on into the next.

Dan Stevens & Michelle Dockery as
Matthew & Mary Crawley

In one of the scenes to follow, we see two servants—a lady’s maid and a footman—plotting against not only their fellow employees but the family who pays their wages.  The scene after that?  The head housemaid stumbles upon the butler while he suspiciously shoves potatoes and other pantry foods into a leather bag.  What in the world?  The confusion written all over her face is practically palpable.  But wait just a minute!  Upstairs, Lady Grantham just inadvertently suggested to Mary, her eldest daughter, that she should marry the new heir, for what better way to secure her position and her fortune?

“I believe there’s an answer which would secure your future and give you a position,” says Lady Grantham, to which Mary, visibly astonished, replies, “You can’t be serious.”  (Downton Abbey, Season 1, Episode 2)

"You can't be serious."

I could go on and on, but I think you’ve probably grasped the point, smart reader that you are. Fact is, without tension, you don’t have much of a story.  When you’re editing, how do you decide what scene(s) have to go?  Because we all know they should be pertinent to the story, right?  In essence, if it’s not moving the plot or showing character growth, well, it doesn’t belong.  So, it’s pretty safe to say that, if a particular scene doesn’t reflect any tension at all … yeah, you get the idea.

A fellow writer once gave me some really good advice:  You know the director’s scene cuts on the dvds or blurays you purchase?  They’re always in the “extras” part on the main menu.  Watch those, then think about why the director chose to cut those scenes.  Believe me, he had his reasons.  While I’ve yet to see the scene cuts from Downton Abbey, I’m certain creator Julian Fellowes had plenty.  The show, from scene to scene to scene, is too interesting, too intense (ah, tension!) otherwise.

Can you think of a particular movie or television show that immediately made you think … Wow, great tension!?  If so, which?

Peace, Love, and Junior Mints,

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