On Killing Darlings: The Downton Abbey Way

Posted by February 22nd, 2013

What writers can learn about storytelling from the British TV drama.

downton-abbey_image_sm1The season three finale of Downton Abbey left me devastated.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.)

On Sunday, right before the final credits rolled, Lady Mary’s husband Matthew died in a tragic car accident that took him away from his newborn son and from millions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The reason for this horrific turn of events is no other than that Dan Stevens, the actor who plays Matthew, decided to leave the show. GASP!

Honest, gentle Matthew is gone forever.

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As heartbroken as I was by Matthew’s demise—after following the show for three seasons I had hoped Matthew and Lady Mary’s tortured love story would finally get its happy ending—I know that come next season, I’ll be back for a helping of Britain’s hottest period drama.

That’s because Julian Fellowes, the mastermind behind Downton Abbey, knows how to keep us on our toes. The show’s creator has story-building tricks up his sleeve that can help serial fiction writers.

If you haven’t seen it, Downton Abbey is fueled by the conflict between the blue-blooded Grantham family, “the upstairs,” and their servants, “the downstairs.” Of course, each group enjoys a great deal of friction among its members, but it’s the collision (or collusion!) of servants and masters that has brought us some of the best moments in the show. My favorite: when the jealous lady’s maid Sarah slipped a bar of soap under pregnant Lady Grantham’s feet in the bath, causing her to slip and have a miscarriage. Oh my.

The writers constantly surprise by harming their characters. Season three is no different: they killed off two of our most beloved characters, Lady Sybil and Matthew. On Sunday, Twitter exploded with fans’ outrage.

And that’s okay because a good writer must sometimes kill the darlings to keep the integrity of his or her work.

Fellowes did it because he didn’t want to risk the show running its course and getting boring. Matthew’s exit from the show had to remain true to the character. The writer released a statement to defend the shocking season finale:

Over the last three years, audiences across the world have been captivated by the ups and downs of Mary and Matthew’s relationship, culminating in their wedding. Fans have enjoyed what has become a solid and loving marriage.

It is for this reason that the Producers decided Matthew and Mary could not simply be estranged or parted, resulting in his untimely and tragic death at the end of the series’ finale.

But even if Dan Stevens hadn’t left, was Mary and Matthew’s long-term happiness good for the show’s longevity? Remember how Pam and Jim’s romance ruined The Office? The courtship drew viewers to the screen for a few seasons, but once America’s sweethearts got hitched, their love quickly became old news and just got in the way.

For Downton Abbey to live a long, happy life on TV, Lady Mary needs to suffer the tragedy of loss.

Writers, how have you harmed your characters for the good of the story?

 

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