7 Writing Lessons From Binging OUTLANDER

Books vs. TV show

Outlander is a typical TV series meant to get us hooked and binging. Binging on TV series in 2020 became an acceptable habit, though not one I was proud of.

However, after spending 10 days binging and reading the four books, which the TV series is based upon, I’ve found benefits for binging and lessons to be learned about book adaptations.

7 lessons I learned from binge watching Outlander.

WARNING – If you have not watched or read the books there might be some SPOILERS in this post.

The story begins after World War 2, when combat nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall is vacationing with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands when she’s transported back in time to 1743 Scotland through an ancient stone circle. There, she meets Jamie Fraser, who helps her navigate this dangerous new world and whom she falls in love with.

Claire and Jamie go on to have adventures in France, the Caribbean and America. More time traveling occurs as well, during the four seasons and books.

Lesson #1 – Make your Protagonist an active one

Claire is the main character in the book.  However, she’s being thrown into situations and circumstances beyond her control and she needs to adjust quickly.

In the TV series we see Claire using her experience as a nurse by giving orders to anyone who is around as if she’s on the battlefield taking care of injured people without any notice how it is perceived in the 18th century.

She takes control whenever men are injured and stitches them up or operating on them even in the 18th century conditions. By doing so she gains the respect of the men around her, and makes her an active and powerful character and not a passive one.

It always came back to that, which made it into a strong and engaging show to keep on watching. The minute that string was torn and the theme was forgotten, that’s when the show started drifting away and all you got was maybe jewels, but not a story that could keep you engaged.

Main lesson – find active visual ways to make your character as proactive as possible even in situations when they are thrown into so they could take the lead.

Lesson #2Keep an interesting character as long as you can

In the books Jamie’s godfather Murtagh is a minor character and appears only in the first book. However, his story is a strong one with emotional impact both on Jamie and Claire.

His loyalty and love to Jamie only rivals Claire’s love to him. In the TV series they gave him a much larger role, which allows us to see the transition of the attitude towards Claire, who is the stranger, into accepting her and appreciating her.

Murtagh serves as a guide to Claire (and us the viewers) into the uncharted and unknown world of Scottish clans culture and intrigues.

His role as a guide continues into Season 4 when they reach the New World and becomes Jamie and Claire’s guide introducing them into the power games that are taking place there.

Main lesson – take a character that originally had an important role in the main character’s back-story and use him/her as much as possible as a guide for the readers in the adventure of the main characters.

Lesson #3 Introduce a new character to help create the Protagonist arc

The characters of Angus and Rupert do not appear in the books.  In the TV show they are instructed by Dougal MaKenzie to keep an eye on Claire as he suspects her of being a spy.

This duo is like an 18 century Scottish Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They allow us to learn how men treated women in those days. The exchanges between the vulgar, rude and obnoxious Angus and Claire demonstrate how women were treated.

Claire is not someone who shies from “men talk” or sexism and she’s not insulted by it. Her response to one of Angus’ endless descriptions of how to treat a woman, by making a joke of it, comes as a shock to the group, but immediately gains their trust and respect for her as they accept it as part of the teasing. It’s one of her first steps in being accepted as equal in the group.

Each time Angus and Rupert trust Claire more we know that her position in the group and the clan becomes higher even though she is an outsider.

Main lesson – when adapting a book to the screen don’t hesitate in creating a new character to enhance a theme that is important or boosting relationships. In the end, a story is as good as the character and his/her relationships

Lesson #4 – Simplify the story

In a TV show we don’t have time for back-story and the pace needs to keep us going wanting to binge more. Therefore it’s no wonder that some details, events, or even plotlines had to be excluded from the TV adaptation. In many cases shorting those plot lines made the scenes more powerful.

In the books, Jamie is rescued and then taken to an abbey in France. There, he is given weeks to recover from what was done to him. In the TV show Jamie recovers at a Scottish abbey and he has far less time to come to grips with what happened.

It might look as damaging the credibility of the trauma story, but it made the story simpler and focused on the main characters, Claire and Jamie, and the lengths Claire would go to save Jamie. This was diluted, in the book, with other characters helping her in the process.

Another example is during the episode when Claire is on trial for witchcraft and her relationship with Gellis Duncan.

In the show Claire refuses to betray Gellis, as Ned, her lawyer, suggests, which leads to Gellis’s decision of admitting she’s a witch whereby saving Claire. In the books it is described differently and in a much lengthy way, which takes away the power of a strong sub-story.

Main lesson – simplify your story to make it powerful and clear.

Lesson #5 – Use physical objects to tell a full story and concept

In the books Claire is wearing two wedding rings, one golden ring from Frank and a silver one from Jamie. Keeping both rings is a fantastic way of showing that this woman is tied to these two men.

Jamie’s ring is a special one. Whether it would be the one that is described in the books, or the one we see in the TV show, both rings showed the connection as being a unique and special one.

I loved the change they made in the ring they present in the TV show. The ring Jamie gives Claire is made from something he carried with him at all times, which was the key to his beloved estate Lallybroch. This, more than anything else, shows that from the start he is giving Claire a key to his heart.

Main lesson – film and TV shows are visual mediums therefore find physical objects that could demonstrate, more than any words, the significance of a relationship and emotions.

Lesson #6 – Create complicated characters to intensify the conflicts

In the books Frank’s character is one-dimensional. Frank lacks feelings and is quite chauvinistic. Moreover he has many affairs with different women during his marriage with Claire, which makes it hard to understand why she would stay with him.

On screen, Frank is heartbroken when Claire disappears and is desperately looking for his missing wife. When Claire finally reappears after several years, pregnant with another man’s child and telling crazy time-travelling stories, Frank becomes a loving father to her daughter Brianna. This makes him a hero and a tragic one. He has not stopped loving Claire even when he knows that her heart belongs to someone else.

This adjustment to Frank’s character intensifies the choice Claire has to make between those two men that she loves. It makes Frank a full character and allows the creation of a true love story between Claire and her two husbands. Furthermore, the choice that Claire finally makes shows how powerful her love for Jamie is. 

Main lesson – When adapting a book don’t hesitate in creating multi-layer characters even if in the book they are one-dimensional. It can help in creating tension and intensify the drama.

Lesson #7 – Use existing character for a new plot line

Introducing a new character on screen is expensive and complicated. Instead, if possible, use an existing character and give them more screen time by getting them involved in the new plotline.

In the books, Jamie’s aunt, Jocasta Cameron, has an interesting love relationship with one of Jamie’s men who were with him in prison. Instead, the show runners have decided to create this plotline between the impressive Jocasta and Murtagh Fraser.

Having Murtagh survive Culloden has improved the story already (see #2). Now adding him to this romantic relationship with Jocasta, makes sense and simplifies the production, which allowed flow and quicker pace of story.

Having Murtagh as the love interest of Jocasta also creates a nice completion with the backstory of his love to Jamie’s mother, Jocasta sister, Ellen. That way everything is tied nicely in a (yellow) ribbon.

Main lesson – when developing new plotlines, check if you need to add characters or maybe you can use existing ones that would amplify and complete the story.

Bottom line  – even when binging you can learn a lot when you stay tuned and alert to why changes have been made from the original source.

Would love to hear, in the comment box below, what was for you the most important lesson that you could use in your writing


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