I Hate Downton Abbey
I know I lay myself open for a lot of hate mail by declaring my dislike of Downton Abby. But you can’t accuse me of just watching one program and writing it off. Nope, I watched every season.
Self-defence. Invariably, someone would ask, “Did you see Downton Abbey last night?” If I said ‘no’, I invariably got a retelling of the whole program in excruciating detail. So I watched and developed my stock answer: Yes, wonderful setting. Yes, great costumes. Good acting, too.
All of which was true. But I still hated it.
Why do I hate Downton Abbey?
Let me give you an example from the first season. So the heir to the estate shows up. The oldest girl of the family resists falling in love with him, but eventually succumbs. There is a scene of them dancing together to establish it. One wrinkle—the heir is already engaged to someone else and she sees them waltzing.
Right at that moment, I knew the fiancée was toast. And sure enough, she conveniently dies of influenza shortly thereafter, paving the way for True Love.
The whole series had that quality. When a character stood in the way of the advancement of the story, a convenient accident or death whisked him or her out of the way. It was like watching a train barrelling across a prairie towards you and then being asked to be surprised when you had to jump out of the way.
In short, Downton Abbey was predictable.
Isn’t predictability good?
Okay, I’m not saying that predictability is totally and invariably unacceptable. Take mystery novels. As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, they have a well-accepted format which readers expect and enjoy. Murder, suspect, detective, resolution. Same for Harlequin romances. Poor but worthy girl falls for virile but flawed male after series of tribulations.
And I don’t wish to imply that some authors aren’t very inventive in sticking to the expected while still weaving an enjoyable story around it. (Okay, maybe I’m just talking about mysteries.)
But where there is not a well-established path, where you aren’t supposed to know where the story is going—i.e., the rest of fiction—too much predictability is boring.
What should we be aiming for?
Fighting predictability is a constant battle. It’s not that you are aiming for it, but it is often the easy way out of a writing predicament. If your characters have become stock, then when the villain makes a choice, it takes little effort to have him act more evil than possibly explore some other option.
Even when you are striving for more nuanced characters, it is so alluring to have them act in predictable ways. The concerned mother, the feckless teenager, the embittered old man. These tropes aren’t bad in and of themselves, but good fiction aims to help the reader see the world in way he hadn’t before. Not with alien landscapes necessarily, but more with a perspective or insight which is new.
It’s harder to do that if you are using tried and true actions, feelings, or values from tried and true characters. Next post: Avoiding Predictability.