Sunday, January 27, 2013

“Downton Abbey’s” Back

When last Sunday’s episode ended, it seemed that it’d only just begun. How did fifty + minutes fly like that? Again, there’s food for novelist thought here.

·         Rich characters. An impractical earl, a questionably charming new footman, and a morally impeccable convict defy every stereotype. These characters—and all characters—emotionally engage us by transcending type. In this episode, every character, however minor, is both individual and representative, both specific and universal. That’s every storyteller’s goal.

·         Interwoven subplots. Each character’s tribulations must impinge on every other character’s. This weaves not a series of brief, tangentially related stories but one gorgeously unified tapestry with no visible evidence of the separate threads that produced it.

·         Moral dilemma. This has driven story since the origin of the form. The classic conflict is a character passionately loving someone with a different ethical code. Whether the moral center is how to run the estate, maintain honor, or treat the employees, there’s genuine trouble if the beloved does not agree. This is in fact the very worst trouble of all, because how can the protagonist choose between love and morality. What terrible trouble! And trouble drives stories. Otherwise, there’s no point in telling them.

·         Cultural upheaval. Context for individual dilemma not only adds a layer of texture but deepens understanding of the characters inhabiting a world. No one ever lives in a vacuum. Culture impinges on everyone—and always has.

Novelists can find much to gnaw on in the unfolding of this story—not to mention the bliss of following “Downton Abbey’s” characters through the twists and turns of their lives.

Tip: Train yourself to study the machinery of story in everything you watch and read.

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