Connie Britton. Mrs. Coach gets a new gig as Rayna James, country star.

Downton Abbey. Once Upon a Time. Nashville. These three shows are taking storytelling to some pretty grand heights. Granted, Downton has been shoddy this season, which is a shame, because the spectacular first season was so well done, it has been hard to watch how far it has come down in the world. The thing is, the reason Downton is faltering is the same reason Once Upon a Time and Nashville are consistently delivering the goods. That is, it has stopped doing what OUAT and Nashville are doing so well.

I am convinced that before a single page was written for OUAT and Nashville, the characters were fully fleshed out, including their complex relationships with one another. In Nashville, you could see the diagramming that goes on. To take just one example, Deacon is the alcoholic ex of superstar Rayna James, father of one of her daughters, first love, and tortured musical genius. He becomes the lead guitarist, lover, and mentor/father figure of up-and-coming Juliette Barnes, the predatory yet vulnerable country superstar…

In OUAT, there was the fun of figuring out each fairytale character and their analog in the real world. The story lines have been puzzles that the reader gets to deconstruct and solve. Half the fun is figuring out who is who in each world. It’s gotten a little wonky here and there, but the overall mechanism works, because the writers all know the back story they are doling out in delicious bites throughout the season. Every fan has a moment when they realize — OMG, that’s X from that fairy tale! (My favorite were the fairies — you just know in the writers room someone blurted out that the fairies are the nuns and everyone cackled with glee.)

Where Downton Abbey falls short is that the first season was clearly a fit of genius from one mind — and then the production crew didn’t know what to do with these people. They didn’t know anything about them, so the storylines became more and more preposterous. The best example of this is Lady Edith — poor girl doesn’t know from moment to moment if she is a backstabbing witch, a wholly competent nurse, a willing adulteress, an independent woman, a lovesick girl…and now she’s a suffragette and political thinker, as if the cause of suffrage is only taken up by wealthy spinsters who have nothing better to do.

I’ve always been a pantser, but after seeing the meticulous character and plot work that has gone into these shows I’ve started to reconsider. Yes, outlining is hard, but after seeing what these shows can do, when it’s clear that nothing was written until the characters and setting were developed, makes me think the writing will go a lot more smoothly. One of the things that has always made me hesitant about outlining is that I worry that it won’t leave room for serendipity. Now I’m beginning to think that there’s still an opening for the epiphany — it just comes in the proposal or the outline.

None of these shows are perfect. They are, however, stellar examples of some wonderful storytelling. And that’s what it’s all about, no matter the medium.




Rebecca · February 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm

I find a little outlining goes a long way. For me, it’s a delicate balance. I need some kind of map before I set off, but once I get going I’m constantly revising the outline. Maybe it’s like a kind of magical map that keeps changing, yet still somehow gets me to my destination. I guess that makes sense since I almost never end up with a finished story that exactly matches what I set out to write on day one.

Patrice Sarath · February 13, 2013 at 10:40 pm

I like the idea of the magical map. And that tends to be the way I outline too, when I do outline. I am sort of pantsing and outlining Bandit Girls, and it seems to be working.

But I think the development work that’s gone into the shows I reference here puts a spin on outlining that maybe occupies a space between outlining and writing. That’s probably because scripted television is so expensive, production teams have to have everything nailed down, far beyond what a regular Jo(e) novelist needs to do. Regardless of the reason, man, the work really pays off when it is done right.

A3 · February 13, 2013 at 11:55 pm

I have been reading the scripts from the first season of Downton Abbey, and I have really been enjoying them. They’re full of delightful footnotes (footnotes! I love footnotes!) about period detail, filming details, and what the writer was thinking about the characters and the plot. He deliberately tried to establish each of the daughters as a separate character, and he tried to drive conflict from showing people with reasonable, but different points of view about various issues. I highly recommend the book. I’d love to see the same for Once Upon a Time …

I am a planner, myself, even for short fiction. I like to have a list of scenes and know what I’m doing in each. However, I am working on learning how to free-write to get myself started and to get myself unstuck.

Patrice Sarath · February 14, 2013 at 6:59 am

Very interesting! I will have to look for that. That copious detail and background work showed through in the first season. It’s just baffling, the later seasons. Now, there are still plenty of things that are enjoyable about Downton, and it’s not just the setting — the characters are still intriguing and sympathetic. I just wish the show had the same care it had in S1.

I can’t plan for stories. I have an idea, and I think about it, and then I start writing. I find that if I outline a short story, I know too much about it, and then there’s no point in writing it, is there. On the other hand, the one story I did research and plan did the best. I might have to change my M.O.

A Lockwood · February 14, 2013 at 8:42 am

“One of the things that has always made me hesitant about outlining is that I worry that it won’t leave room for serendipity.”

I tried planning out a whole lot more for The Never Silent than for any book previous, and I found that I ended up *more* surprised and delighted by the unexpected while writing the first draft. Since I already knew so much, the surprises were deeper and more meaningful.

I’ve been enjoying Once Upon a Time a whole lot more this season than the first season. But I think the reason for that is that I don’t really like the main characters or their story lines, and this season there’s a little less focus on them.

Patrice Sarath · February 14, 2013 at 9:36 pm

I was talking with a screenwriting friend at work today and she also said that the epiphanies happen in the outline and development stage. I should just exercise my outlining muscles.

We were also talking about Once, and she had to stop watching it. For sure, there are some real problems with the show, and there are times when it exasperates me. But I’m still fascinated enough to care about how they plan to bring it all together. And now that Mr. Gold is out in the wide world, I think things are getting interesting.

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