Monday, April 15, 2013

What "Downton Abbey" Can Teach us About Tension

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Even if you don't watch TV, odds are you've heard someone somewhere mention Downton Abbey. It's a fantastic show, and one of the things that really impresses me about it is the sense of tension.

If you haven't seen the show, go watch it. Seriously. Just the first season is fine for this post. That's only seven episodes.

If you have seen it, you'll know that nothing really happens, yet you can't look away.

If you're unsure about how to achieve tension in your work, Downton Abbey will show you how. Since you might not have time to go watch seven hours of TV, I'll share some of those reasons now.

1. It starts with a problem.

Right away, something has happened and there's a direct consequence to the main characters because of it. In this case, the Titanic has sunk and the two main heirs to the Lord of the manor have died. No heir = major problem, and the only way for the characters not to lose their home and wealth is to marry the eldest daughter to the next in line.

Why this works:
A problem with high stakes makes readers curious. It clearly matters to the characters in a "life and death" way without actually having someone's life in danger. But their lives will forever be altered for the worse by what has happened, and the only way to fix it is to do something they'd rather not do. It also leaves you with questions about the outcome. What will the new heir be like? Will the eldest daughter catch his eye? Will they be able to arrange a marriage or will they be tossed out on their ears? What will they do if that happens?

How you can use this: Start each scene with a problem and give the protagonist an issue that has to be solved or their life will change for the worse.

(More on goals)

2. Things do not go well.

What the characters hope will happen, doesn't. In fact, the opposite occurs. The heir is not at all the noble Brit the family had hoped for, and he and the daughter do not get along. Not only is the family at risk, but the honor and traditions of the estate as well, which is like a family member to them.

Why this works: The problem is clearly stated and a path of what has to be done to resolve it is laid out, along with the stakes if they fail. It's very clear where the story is going. The daughter has to win over the heir or the family loses everything. And "everything" has gone up a notch, because the heir doesn't understand what being Lord of Downton Abbey means. Not only the family is at risk, but the town and the estate as well. It hits on a personal and broader level.

How you can use this:
Don't give your protagonist a break. Let things not go their way, either through their own actions, or the actions of others. People don't want to do what's best for them but what's best for themselves.

(More on causing trouble)

3. Things get complicated.

Once the main storyline is set up, the subplots kick in. Not only is the show about the noble family, but the staff who lives and works there. Every character has a conflict with at least one other, with goals, hopes, and problems of their own. Nothing really story-driving, but when combined with everything else going on, there's always something about to happen that could blow up at any moment. There's tension because there are people who all want different things, and there are consequences to each person getting what they want.

Why this works:
It helps take the pressure off the main story, holds the viewers' attention, and gives viewers even more things to worry and wonder about. These are the subplots and supporting characters of a story, and better still, their actions have consequences an influences on what the main characters are doing. Petty grievances lead to bigger-than-intended problems.

How you can use this:
Give your secondary and supporting characters problems of their own to deal with. You don't want to create subplots that require their own book to resolve, but let the other characters have lives of their own. They're not just there to prop up the main character. Small issues can affect the protagonist and core conflict, and create tension because what the hero might need from another character could go against what they want. Or a smaller character could do something that could adversely affect the hero.

(More on secondary characters)

4. People make mistakes at the worst possible time.

Tension works when the reader feels that anything might happen at any time and it'll likely be bad. Downton Abbey excels at that, because the characters make mistakes. Sometimes really huge mistakes that threaten everything they want, but also honest mistakes, petty mistakes, and evil, deliberate mistakes.

Why this works: It helps keep things unpredictable, and keeps the stakes escalating. It also shows that any character is capable of throwing a wrench into the protagonist's plans.

How you can use this: Let characters act in ways that hurt your protagonist. They can even help you setup a bad situation you need for your protagonist that they can't get themselves into on their own (create a plot situation that would otherwise feel implausible). Let your protagonist make mistakes, too. Nobody is perfect and people do the right thing for the wrong reasons (or the wrong thing for the right reason) all the time. They even do the stupid thing for the selfish reason.

(More on making mistakes)

5. Not everybody is nice.

Two words for the fans: O'Brien and Thomas. Two characters you love to hate, but things in the Abbey would go way too smoothly if they weren't there. Yet they're not really antagonists. They're petty, selfish, mean-spirited, but they're not trying to stop the protagonists from anything. But they do cause loads of trouble and don't care who they hurt to get what they want.

Why this works: Without a traditional villain antagonist (the antagonist here is a nice guy who just doesn't want what they want), there's no one in the show to root against. These characters take on the role of "characters we hate" so the other characters can shine a bit more. (I mean seriously, wouldn't you hate Mary if she wasn't compared to O'Brien?) They also can be counted on to make things worse or cause trouble when needed for the plot. And because their actions are deliberate, the consequences have so much more tension and impact than an accident or something contrived for plot reasons.

How you can use this: Nasty characters with agendas can cause bad things to happen in ways that seem plausible. They also add tension, because you wonder how far will this person go. They can be unpredictable, vengeful, petty--and anything can happen with a person like that.

(More on non-antagonist bad guys)

6. It's all personal.

Every character in this show has something to win or lose. So when things happen, someone is affected by it, usually multiple people in various ways. Nothing happens just to happen.

Why this works: The sense that even the smallest event can drastically alter someone's life is powerful. It makes you want to watch and see what happens next. It also makes you pay attention to what's going on, because you know it'll matter somehow, even if it's not clear when it first occurs.

How you can use this: Don't have things happen without it mattering to someone. Even if all it does is affect a small character who only interacts with the protagonist a few times, let that have an impact in some way. Let your world and story change the lives of your characters so readers watch and wonder what each thing will do.

(More on making readers care)

7. The unexpected, out-of-your-control happens.

For the Abbey, it was World War I. Just when they think things are working out--BAM! The world explodes. It's a nice reminder than sometimes, events larger than the people of the story occur, and those events can change lives in ways no one ever saw coming.

Why this works: Sometimes you need outside forces to shake up a story or send it in a way the characters themselves can't. Plots in the Abbey had played themselves out as far as they could, and forcing the issues would start feeling contrived. Add a war that changes everything, and suddenly the petty problems become less vital, and the important problems become more so.

How you can use this: Sometimes things going wrong for the protagonist every single time starts to feel forced. You'd have to make your protagonist act like a total idiot for them to make a mistake or cause a problem. There's nothing you can do to make things worse or muck up the works, but you still need things to go wrong. An outside event could be the right answer to that.

Even on a smaller level, things can happen in the world or character's life that are outside their control and have serious effects. It doesn't have to be WWI-level drama to make it work. Something a character couldn't possibly see coming works just as well.

(More on the unexpected)

Downton Abbey is a wonderful study on tension and how small things can be just as gripping as huge action events--often more so because they're so personal.

Writing exercise time! (CONTEST CLOSED)

Write a tension-filled scene of 250 words or less.

But here's the catch: It can't be a traditional life or death scene. No one held at gunpoint, no dire harm about to befall someone. Make it quiet and personal, tension created through personal conflict, not through action-movie style situations.

Deadline for entries is next Monday, April 22, at noon, EST. I'll choose the winner and post the finalists on Tuesday, April 23rd. Leave entries in the comments.

Winner gets a 1000-word critique.
Previous winners are ineligible to win, but they can still do the exercise if they want. You can even do the exercise even if you don't want a critique (not everyone has something ready). Just say you're doing it for fun and I won't count you.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I actually wrote this for last week's writing challenge, but I think it fits better here. Can I get extra credit for using the 6 assigned words?

    Amy had always been a Good Girl.

    But now, edging toward her mother’s bedroom, she felt anything but good. The thin line of light beneath the door grew larger as she approached until finally it seized her bare feet. She raised her hand to knock, then stopped.


    Not yet. She couldn’t do it.

    Soundlessly, Amy wilted, leaning against the wall beside the door. Her forehead pressed on the faded wallpaper, its tiny flowers mocking her misery. She closed her eyes. How had she gotten here, deflated, in a cold hallway listening to the canned laughter of a sitcom behind her mother’s door?

    Images of that night passed before her for the hundredth time. A Ford Bronco. Tom Petty on the classic rock station. Eric’s lips, chapped from too many hours in the sun, his breath a cloud of Doublemint in her mouth, on her neck, on her skin. Leather seats, cold, then not. The open teeth of his zipper nipping at her thigh.

    And then, later, the blood that never came.



    Amy lifted her hand again. This time she was able to knock, but as soon as she did so, she wished she could take it back. At the call from her mother, she gripped the doorknob and turned. It took two tries—her hand was sweaty—but the door opened and Amy took a step into the lamplit room.

    She had always been a Good Girl . . .

  2. Love Downton Abby though I started in season 2 and never watched season 1. All your points are so true. I think the fact that we care about so many characters--the secondary ones as much as the main characters--makes this a riveting story.

  3. Jillian, if you win, I'll give you extra words on your crit :)

    Natalie, oh, you have to go back and watch first season. And the Christmas episodes in between. More happens in those plotwise than the whole season! I agree about the characters. They're so wonderful flawed and human and real.

  4. I'm one of those weirdoes that never watches TV, however, you've definitely peaked my curiosity!
    As always, your post is chockfull of great info. I'll have to take my time mulling this over.

  5. Downton Abbey is wonderful. You've done a nice job of showing us why.

  6. Emily, even if you don't watch the whole things, the first season (7 episodes) is worth it as a learning tool.

    LD, thanks!

  7. I never watch TV series, but I've made an exception for Downton Abbey. It has struck me too that the makers of the series is very good at putting conflict and tension into every scene >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  8. I'm not much of a TV watcher, but I appreciate the comparisons. I'll return to this blog again, I'm sure. Thanks.

  9. OMG, one of my absolute FAVE shows! I haven't seen any from this season yet. My sister has the DVD and we plan to watch it together, uninterrupted. Thanks for the fun tips!

  10. Cold As Heaven, it reminded me of the literary novel, "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield. Nothing happens, yet I couldn't put it down. The tension of the lives and the need to know how things turned out is what keeps you hooked in both. Masterful!

    Carol, welcome, and hope to seer you back!

    Julie, that's how the hubby and I like to watch them, too. I hate to wait a week to see the next episode.

  11. “Sure, boss. Whatever you say. Say the word, and I’m off; snap your fingers and I go.”

    “Throw a book and you shut up?”

    “Don’t abuse your books,” I advised. “They’ve got leather bindings; Joss can probably sell them for quite a lot when you die.”

    From behind me, Joss said dryly, “It’s not like I’d ever read them.”

    Judging by the smirk that slid onto J.B.’s face, he had been waiting for me to make another crack against Joss. I turned around. And from the icy stare Joss leveled at me, he wasn’t pleased that I had. I smirked. “How’s the girlfriend?”

    He looked past me to his father. “Why is the riffraff in the house again?”

    “He’s working,” J.B. said.

    Joss gave me a filthy look and brushed past. “Can we talk, Dad? Privately?”

    “Need a bigger allowance?” I asked.

    “It’s a salary,” Joss said.

    I winked at J.B. “Of course it is.”

    Joss turned on me. “You want to start something, Redmond?”

    “No, but J.B. is thinking of starting a trust fund for you.” Even as the words left my mouth, I saw murder in Joss’s eyes. Go on, rich boy, punch me. I shifted my weight, just a little. Go on…

    J.B. intervened before Joss could move. “Out, A.J.!” I flipped a salute to him and swaggered out.

  12. The Eagle Scout saw the old lady eying him as he approached the bench. He smiled.

    “Young man, can you help me across the street?”

    “Certainly. Take my arm.”

    “You’ll have to come closer.”

    He took another step, stooped and let his elbow touch hers. She slid her arm into the crook of his, and he turned toward the street. The weight of her jerked him back.

    “Stand up, mam.”

    “I can’t.”

    “Why not?”

    “I don’t have legs.”

    He stuttered. He recovered. “How’d you get to the bench?”

    “I walked here with my husband.”

    “Where’s he?”

    “Across the street.”

    “What happened to your legs?”

    “He took ‘em.”


    “So I wouldn’t cross the street.”

    “I don’t understand. Why doesn’t he want you over there with him?”

    “Young man, you’re getting a bit personal. Ladies don’t talk about their husbands with strangers.”

    “But, but, but, but . . . .”

    “Gees. You sound like an outboard motor.”

    “Mam, you’re asking me to take you across the street ‘cause your husband took your legs so you wouldn’t cross. What are you getting me into?”

    “OK, but this is embarrassing. You’ll be discreet?”

    He nodded.

    “I only told you half the truth. Yes, he didn’t want me to cross the street, but he also took my legs to beat up the guy in the newspaper kiosk.”


    “‘Cause I was cheating with him. You satisfied?”

    “What are you planning to do?”

    “This,” she said pulling a sword from her cane. “This.”

  13. “You didn’t know? Becks!” Jill shouted.

    But I was already gone. Find Ben, find Ben, find…

    “Rebecca, hello.” Aunt Miriam blocked my way. She dropped her voice. “So what’s this big news? Your mother won’t tell me - typical.”

    “I don’t know,” I lied. “Have you seen Ben?”

    She shrugged. “With the boys, I imagine, in the garage.”

    “Thanks.” Over thirty and still “the boys.” I grinned until I remembered why I was running. Around the corner, past the kitchen, find Ben…

    “Rebecca Lane, do not run in my house.” Mom couldn’t even see me – she was busy at the stove. How did she do that?

    “Sorry,” I called. I careened around some younger cousins playing Marco Polo in the hallway, then threw open the door to the garage. No Ben.


    I ran outside, ignoring the mud squishing through my socks. Ben, I thought, for once in your life, please don’t tell.

    As I rounded the corner to the backyard, pandemonium erupted on the patio. Everyone was hugging and crying. I backed against the wall.

    “Becky!” Uncle John wrapped me in a bear hug. “You’re getting married!”

    I looked over his shoulder. Ben was beaming at me. “I couldn’t wait any longer.” He didn’t look the least bit sorry.

    Behind him, framed in the sliding door, stood my sister - hands clenched, holding back tears. Mom put an arm around her and looked daggers at me.

    Why didn’t they tell me ahead of time that Liz was finally pregnant?

  14. Now I have to check it out.

    Here's part of something I wrote last night. MC is working in a video store when he meets a friend he hasn't seen since they were kids.


    The curtain to the ADULTS ONLY room whipped open. The man who came with Marshall stalked out with a bunch of videos. Marshall scooted away from the counter as the man dumped his stack in front of me. He threw down a twenty. It skated off the counter and landed on my lap.

    “Will this be all, sir?” I said, sorting through the tapes.

    This was sick stuff. It wasn’t my business to judge the customers. But this man had gross-looking stains on his Hulk shirt. You get all sorts of bums in this store, jobless grownups with the same stringy shoulder-length hair and sour smell. But this guy, there was something dangerously dazed about him.

    “How much you got?” he said, gesturing at Marshall.

    Marshall shrugged his shoulders, real slow and impudent. The man’s face didn’t even twitch. He grabbed Marshall by the waistband, pawing at his back pocket.

    “Hey, hey, a twenty’s enough,” I said, halfway out of my seat.

    The man dropped Marshall on the ground. He tossed another crinkled five onto the counter before he stalked back to the ADULTS ONLY room.

    “Asshole,” Marshall muttered. He tugged his pants up.

    I scanned the video tapes quickly. The women on the covers looked like they were in pain.

    “Is he your dad?” I said.

    “My aunt’s husband.”

    “What happened to your mom?”

    “She became a unicorn,” Marshall said.

    Marshall’s aunt’s husband came back with two more tapes. On the cover of the last one, there was a scared-looking boy our age getting shoved into a crate. It wasn’t my business to judge.

  15. This is a great post Janice. I've only seen bits of Abbey. I plan on catching the first season on Netflix when I get a moment of free time (I think I just made a joke. Is there even such a thing as free time?) Anyway, I hope I can submit 250 wds to you by Monday. This is a good challenge.

    Also, the Boston marathon is a perfect example of how life can be altered in a blink of an eye without any notice whatsoever.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Here's my snippet for this exercise...I love these exercises, BTW. I used some info from yesterday's "remembered dialog" blog...

    Finally. Alone in Emeline Greene's house.

    Of course, I have no idea who Emeline Greene is, or was, only that her name is inscribed on the crumbling, granite steps. Like the rest of the house, the stone steps are in an advanced stage of neglect. The years have not been kind to this onetime Victorian beauty; and yet, an aura something grand and glamorous still clings to her weathered veneer.

    In case you haven't guessed, I'm kind of obsessed with this house.

    "Infested with raccoons!" My mother warned me. "Any fool who trespasses there had better get their rabies vaccines."

    Trespasses. True, I am trespassing. But -- how does the expression go --something about asking for forgiveness instead of permission?

    "Sorry Emeline," I say, and then laugh out loud. The house laughs too. Strange echo.

    Shadows of leafy branches dance across the faded wallpaper. The pattern is still discernible in a few places, pink vertical stripes and tiny painted rosebuds. Enchanting. Just like I knew it would be.

    I slink down a narrow hallway into the kitchen. A blanket of undisturbed dust masks every surface. A stout, porcelain pitcher is swaddled in cob webs. Seven wooden spoons of varying sizes are arranged neatly on the floor. What is that all about?

    I step over the spoons, careful not to displace them. Something much too white pokes up out of the sink. I move closer. It's a chicken…a freshly dead one. And, it's arranged neatly, no blood, no missing feathers.

    Definitely not raccoons.

  18. Jim eased the car to the side of the road and stopped. Flashing lights from the police car lit the forest edge like a dance floor. It matched the rhythm of the music before he turned it off. His mind search for the reason for the stop but found none. Was he speeding? Did he have a taillight out? This road wasn’t normally patrolled.

    Swallowing hard, he loosened his grip the wheel, flexing his fingers.In the distance the sound of a door closing told him he was about to find out the reason for the stop. Shadows behind the car broke the strobe effect as the trees continued to dance.

    From outside the window the slow tap of hard-soled shoes mixed with the scrap of gravel under foot approached the car. The muffled squawk from the police radio filled the air. The flashlight beam invaded the car’s interior, relentless in its search from back to front. Glancing hits to the mirrors flashed against his eyes. It stopped above and behind his shoulder, lighting up the driver’s area.

    Then nothing. No movement, no sound, time froze in the light. A trickle of sweat raced down his cheek.

    Jim turned his face squinting into the brilliance, “Is there something wrong officer?”

    The flashlight clicked off exposing his wife’s beautiful smile. “Do you want Chinese food for dinner?”