7 Writing Lessons From Bingeing OUTLANDER

Outlander – Books vs. TV series

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 I spent 10 days bingeing the TV series and reading its four books. Here are the benefits I found for bingeing and adaptation. Ready? Let’s go!

Lessons Learned

WARNING: if you have not watched or read the books, there be SPOILERS in this post!

The story begins after World War 2. Combat nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall is vacationing with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands. By accident 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. She also falls in love with him.

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

 Lesson #1: Make Your Protagonist Active 

Claire is the main character in the book. She is thrown into situations and circumstances beyond her control, so she needs to adjust quickly.

In the Outlander TV series, we see Claire using her experience as a nurse. She gives by orders to anyone who is around as if she’s on the battlefield. Claire also takes care of injured people, not caring how it is perceived in the 18th century.

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

Main Lesson: Find active visual ways to make your character as proactive as possible. This applies even in situations they are thrown into so they can take the lead. MORE: 8 Steps To Analyse A Successful Story

Lesson #2: Keep 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 for him. In the Outlander TV series they gave Murtagh a much larger role. This allows us to see the transition of the attitude towards Claire, who is the stranger. Over time Murtagh accepts and appreciates her like Jamie does.

He serves as a guide to Claire (and us the viewers). We get to know the uncharted and unknown world of Scottish clan culture. His role as a guide continues into Season 4 when they reach the New World. He introduces  them into the power games that are taking place there.

Main lesson: Utilise a character that originally had an important role in the main character’s back-story. 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 Mackenzie to keep an eye on Claire. This is because he suspects her of being a spy.

This duo is like an 18th 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 the misogyny of the past.

Claire is not someone who shies from “men talk” or sexism, so she’s not insulted. Her response to Angus is to make a joke of it. This comes as a shock to the group, but gains their trust and respect. It’s one of her first steps in being accepted as an equal.

Each time Angus and Rupert trust Claire more, we know her position strengthens, even though she is an outsider.

Main lesson: When adapting a book to the screen don’t hesitate in creating a new character. That new person can enhance a theme or boost an existing relationship. In the end, a story is only as good as the character and his/her relationships! MORE: Book Versus Film: Little Women

Lesson #4: Simplify the story

In a TV show we don’t have a lot of time for back-story. The pace needs to keep us going wanting to binge more. It’s no different in Outlander. Some details, events, or even plotlines had to be excluded altogether from the TV adaptation.

In many cases shortening those plotlines 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 Outlander 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 Jamie’s trauma. However, it made the story simpler and focused on 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. This leads to Gellis’s decision of admitting she’s a witch, saving Claire. In the books it is described in a much lengthy way, which in my opinion takes away its power.

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.

Frank’s wedding ring is a simple gold band. This is traditional and common, but it also represents the type of connection Claire and Frank have. Theirs is a loving but simple, straightforward relationship, nothing out of the ordinary or of what you’d expect.

Jamie’s ring is a special one. Whether the one described in the books, or the one we see in the Outlander TV show, both rings showed those special connections.

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. Find physical objects that can demonstrate, more than any words, the significance of a relationship and emotions.

Lesson #6: Create complicated characters to intensify the conflict

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

On screen, Frank is heartbroken when Claire disappears. He searches desperately for his missing wife. When Claire finally reappears after several years, pregnant with another man’s child, 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 an existing character for a new plot line

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

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

Having Murtagh survive Culloden improves the story (see #2 on this list).  Adding him to this romantic relationship with Jocasta, makes sense and simplifies the production. This in turn allows for the flow and quicker pace of the 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. Maybe you can use existing ones that would amplify and complete the story.

Bottom line on Outlander?

Even when binging you can learn a lot! You just need to stay tuned and alert to why changes have been made from the original source. MORE: 5 Lessons From 50 Movie Reviews In 50 Days 

Thanks, Vered!

BIO: Vered Neta is a proof that you’re never too old to start something new. She says she already had three past lives in this lifetime. After 28 years of being a trainer and working with over 150,000 people all over the world, she started a new career as a screenwriter, author and script reader. She wrote 2 screenplays and a musical. These days she is working on a documentary and a novel based on one of her screenplays and have started a YouTube TV program called #GoodLifeRedefined. You can find more on website www.veredneta.com.

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