Wednesday, January 9, 2013

One Thing Downton Abbey Can Teach Writers About Plotting

by Stephanie Morrill

I watched the Downton Abbey premiere on Sunday night. It was - no surprise - wonderful and totally worth the wait. One thing that show does incredibly well is big stuff happens to the characters. Shockingly big stuff. People die. War happens. Couples who we all want to get together actually get together before the show is cancelled.



On a lot of TV shows, even many of my favorites, the writers almost always hold back the big events. That couple we all want to get together? It'll be years. That big secret a character is trying to hide? We may know it exists from the premier, but they're not letting the details loose until the season finale.

And I'll be honest - to "withhold the big stuff" is my natural tendency when I approach plotting a book. A tendency I'm constantly fighting.

I'm not sure why. I guess I'm nervous that I'll run out of good stuff. That I'll get halfway through the book and dry up. But of course the problem with holding out on your readers is that they may be too bored to get to all the good stuff backloaded in the story.

Is it wrong to hold back things that your readers want, like a couple getting together, or the big reveal of a secret? No, of course not. It's a great way to keep your readers turning the pages ... though if you're building it up as a big event, the pay off better be worth it.

So while I still hold back a thing or two, more and more, I'm asking myself What if this happened now rather than later?

I sat in on a class of Rachel Hauck's and she referred to this as "letting the bomb drop." I don't know what the story bombs are in your book, but I'll pitch a few out.

What if the secret comes out in chapter four rather than chapter fourteen? What all might happen because of it? Or what if that character died? What if he marries someone else? What if she goes on that journey now instead of waiting until the end of the book?

The writers of Downton Abbey seem fearless to me with all the life changes they push their characters into. And they make me want to be fearless too.


How about you? Do you have a tendency to hold back, or do you blast your characters with the fire hose?

Also, thanks to everyone who submitted entries for the Great Lines contest, which closed last night at midnight. I'll give an update tomorrow about numbers (we were totally blown away by how many entries we received) and the timeline for when you can expect results.

28 comments:

  1. I blast my characters with the fire hose. Except sometimes. And then I tend to think some stuff shouldn't come until the end--like the couple getting together or something. Thanks for making this post! It gives me stuff to think about.

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    1. Hannah, I wish I leaned toward the fire hose because it seems like it'd be easier to dial it back then it is to crank it up.

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  2. Wow, I never thought about that. I guess it's one of those things I never questioned..."Make the reader wait!" But I can see how that would be rather frustrating to wait for EVERYTHING.

    And, yay for lots of entries! That was really fun :D I just love coming up with first lines...

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  4. I had to delete that last post because of all the typos:) Below is the same comment with (hopefully) correct spelling.

    Wow! I needed this article. This made me realize that i hold back a TON when writing! I realized that something huge usually happens in the first chapter of my books, then i save the rest for the end finally. Thank you for another awesome article!

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    1. Lol, Raquel. I hadn't noticed them :) Glad you found it helpful!

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  5. I have a tendency to make my characters feel really good and then flip them upside down. Unfortunately, have found that I have done the same thing to two different characters in two different projects. One character reunites with her mom for the first time in three years and then her mom dies in a car accident. My other character is striving to become a better mom and takes entire summer off of work to spend time with her daughter. When things start going well, her daughter falls out of a tree.

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  6. I really like action packed, so I try to have big stuff happening every few chapters. Sometimes having something big happen leads to having another big thing. Like if the couple gets together, they might then have a fight because they're used to just being friends. Things like that. But there are always a few big thins I hold back for the climax, otherwise you wouldn't have one.
    Thanks for the wonderful post, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

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    1. Excellent, Sarah! Sounds like you're already doing this :)

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  7. Stephanie, that is so weird, because I made a similar comment after watching Downton Abbey this Sunday, that the show's storylines are always changing, and that stuff actually happens. :) This has definitely got me thinking--because why am I waiting to have stuff happen when I can keep the read turning pages and keep stuff happening?

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    1. Oh, and I forgot to add this, but if you're going to built up a storyline, it has to be worth it! Like Ron and Hermione getting together in HP, or in a book series I just finished, there was a *huge* buildup about the past of the MC's father and the author waited until the second book to reveal it and the wait was totally worth it. :D

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    2. Absolutely, Allison. Ron and Hermione are a great example. Or even Harry and Ginny. They get together, but it adds to the conflict. Very well done.

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  8. Holding back *something* is usually a must, but I love mixing it up and doing things like having the characters resolve the romance arc before the suspense arc completes, so that they can then go into the climax together, working as a unit. Or hey, let them get married six chapters from the end--why not? LOL. (Though I admit it, I got permission from my editor before going outside the box...)

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    1. Of course you're working within the framework of a genre, which is its own unique challenger. And that book is so wonderful. Can't wait to read it at a more savory pace:)

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  9. This gave me a TON to think about. I never really had thought about events that way before! Hmm, my rewrite may see some big changes now. :D Thanks, Stephanie!

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  10. Like everyone else is saying, this has given me a lot to think about! I *adore* Downton Abbey and, interestingly enough, have been watching it with my "writer brain" turned on, catching how they might hint at this or the way they might go about blasting that. Excellent show and very good post - thanks!

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  11. I've never seen Downton but everyone is talking about it I may have to give it a try. I feel like this a tough situation for writers because the rules say to not reveal everything at once or too soon. There's a lot of books, movies, and tv you can tell when they're being drawn out. Things are so random and dont have the circulatory Jill talked about yesterday ;). And then there are times when what you want to happen, happens like a couple getting together and the writers can't carry it in the

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  12. One of my friends has been begging me to watch Downton Abbey ever since it first aired, but I could never justify spending any extra time watching TV. Now I have a legitimate reason. Thank you! ;)
    I really need to start making things happen earlier on in my stories. One of the things that frustrates me most about TV series (and some books) is how nothing. ever. seems. to. happen. And yet, this has made me realize how much I do the same thing. All I can say now is, watch out characters!
    Great post!

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  13. oooh! Great post! I'm gonna have to think about this! :D

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  14. Woah...never even thought about this. O.O As I'm about to start writing (within the next two weeks or so) this came at a perfect time.

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  15. I love Downton Abbey - and the fact that stuff is always happening is what makes it great (well, awesome clothes and Maggie Smith help too).
    I tend to hold back on stuff, but now as I'm revising my novel I've realised some big things do have to happen earlier.

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  16. I tend to blast my characters in the first four chapters and then again in the climax. My middles can be very slow and I'm working on changing that and spacing my action out a little more. I want to give them just enough time to recover into a false sense of security and then WHAM :) Also, I pick the action that happens based on my characters' traits to make it harder for them. Like, my MC is slow to trust and likes planning, so I make sure to force her into trusting people and throw unexpected situations at her. I hope this establishes some strength of character, although I've never been told to do this. Thanks Stephanie!

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  17. Oh I ADORE Downton Abbey! It's kind of sad, there are few of us DA lovers where I am. But you make an excellent point. I tend to withhold big stuff too. I guess I should start fixing that.

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  18. And if you wrote it in 'now' -- well, so many more possibilities come up because of it. So instead of our story drudging along for ages and we're just writing words, just waiting for the part where our fingers will type like crazy on the keyboard because we have this great idea -- every page is fun. That's something I'm learning and thanks for the reminder!

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  19. This is sooo true! I've noticed that about Downton Abbey, too, but hadn't made the connection to novels yet. Thanks for this, Stephanie!

    I think this is why I love Laura Frantz and Julie Lessman so much. Because in the middle of their books, they're not afraid to let the MMC marry someone else who you so don't want him to marry ... or the couple who you do want to see get married does get married and the book goes on! :)

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