Writing Nowadays–Important Low Stakes at Downton Abbey

In the last installment of this blog, I shredded DOWNTON ABBEY for some sloppy writing.  Just to be even-handed, we should also look at why the show is so successful.  Writing-wise.

The stakes at DOWNTON ABBEY are stunningly low.  It’s marriages and money matters, who will wait at table, whether a dinner goes off well, making sure the fireplaces are cleaned on time, and deciding who will help the head of household get dressed.  I mean, really!  To a modern (American) audience, this is trivial stuff, especially when we learn that if the family goes bankrupt, the worst that will happen is that they’ll have to move to a slightly smaller estate.

Yet we get caught up in it.  We fume when Thomas the weasel wrangles his way into a valet position.  We clap our hands over our mouths in terror when a high-born daughter falls in love with a low-born chauffeur and has to face her family’s outrage.  We squirm in our seats when Cousin Violet is forced to hit up an ultra-wealthy American in-law for some cash to save Downton Abbey’s finances.  (Sure, there’s some higher-stakes, life-and-death stuff with WWI and the Spanish flu, but such only appears briefly.)  Why should such small things be so compelling?

It’s because all these events are important to the CHARACTERS.  Thanks to the writing (and the acting), we can see exactly how frightened Mrs. Patmore is about losing her sight, and how scared Mrs. Hughes is about perhaps having breast cancer.  We can see just how difficult it is for Robert Crawley to deal with modernizing the family’s finances and how unmanned he feels about handling them badly.  We understand how uncomfortable and outraged Tom feels when he’s yanked from lowly chauffeur into the position of upper class gentleman.  None of these struggles matter in the greater world, or even outside of the fictional Downton estate, but they’re struggles we can see are important to the people going through them.

Our own struggles are often much the same way.  Step outside the boundaries of our own homes or our own circle of intimates, and it doesn’t much matter if we get that job, if our kid is accepted into this school, if we get good results on that medical test.  The world will go on.  But all these things are hugely important to US.

Even the highest of high fantasy which deals with clashes between gods and monsters which will decide the fate of entire planets must have characters who are dealing with small struggles as well.  Otherwise, we readers can’t empathize with them.

We need characters whose struggles similar to our own.  DOWNTON ABBEY provides a paragon for exactly that.

–Steven Harper Piziks
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Writing Nowadays–Important Low Stakes at Downton Abbey — 2 Comments

  1. Even within the individual hierarchies of desire (wouldn’t that make a great name for a band? Hierarchies of Desire!) there are rankings. Nobody even at Downton (a place where intelligence is not highly regarded) would argue that Tom’s uncomfortable shuffle from chauffeur to estate manager/son-in-law is a larger and more important thing for him than the loss of his wife, for instance. The trick, for the writer, is to give important things their due and proper importance, and to not focus too long upon the things that everyone agrees are ephemeral. (I am thinking of YOU, fantasy writers who insist upon telling us about fashion choices, or YOU, space opera mavens who devote pages and pages to describing space armaments…)

  2. And if we don’t care about the characters, or they don’t care about the problems, you can threaten the world without engaging your reader.