Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lessons on Writing from Downton Abbey

Raise your hand if you thought it was Downtown Abbey.  Yeah, me too.

If you like that show, you may have something in particular about either the format or storyline that keeps you watching.  I noticed something that is so obvious yet so subtle that many people might have overlooked it.  It's something that's well worth remembering, and is worth applying to my own writing style.

Each scene is short.  No scene is more than a couple of minutes at most.  And these are not just scenes, but separate storylines.  Notice that it shows a clip of the butler with his own issues, doesn't finish it, then jumps to the lady of the house discussing something entirely different with someone else, then back to the butler.

Those short clips serve more than one purpose.  First, they allow for the passing of time between clips.  But they also don't give you a satisfying conclusion to a conversation until you've become interested in another part of the story.  It's a mosaic of the many goings on in and around Downton Abbey.  Most are either inter-related, or at least have pieces that overlap.

I've seen writers use similar techniques.  Remember Dan Brown's notorious tiny chapters?  Of course, he went a bit overboard by having only a half page at times.  That was annoying to read, so I won't follow that style.  But in other books, I've seen long, boring scenes that make you wish for a break.  The reader has to be reminded that other things are going on in this story as well, things that are important and somehow tied to the main plot.

Since I just started yet another rewrite of one of my earlier books, I came up with the idea of applying this technique.  A particular problem that stood out in early drafts of my novel was most of the action and storyline took place at a single location, often involving long scenes that flowed into one another.  It made it feel boring, even to me!  And I wrote it!  So if I really want this thing to not only get published, but be enjoyed, then the least I can do is make it exciting for the reader.

So here we go, DownTown Abbey!  Not only do you give us a memorable hour every week, but perhaps I can borrow some style tips from you as well.

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