Posted On June 19, 2013 by Print This Post

5 Writing Tips From Da Vinci’s Demons with Joanna Penn

I am tickled pink to welcome Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn. I’ve subscribed to her blog for years – she has brilliant tips and articles for writers.

JoannaPennNew9Five years ago, I got rid of my TV as one way to make more time for writing. I still watch some shows on my laptop but now I specifically choose programs to view as downloads. In recent weeks, I’ve been glued to Da Vinci’s Demons which fascinates me as a viewer but also as a writer because it’s addictive and compelling, hooking me in every week. Exactly what we want as writers.

So here are five tips from the show that can help you in your writing.

(1) Tap into resonant words, history, setting and character

There are characters and periods in history that we all know and love, that we return to again and again. Renaissance Florence and Leonardo Da Vinci conjure rich images in the minds of most readers. Avid travelers remember their time in the medieval city and many people include Florence on their bucket list.

By evoking a setting with characters that people already know in some way, the viewer self-identifies with the series and is already invested in the outcome. In writing, we can do the same thing, whether it be book titles or character names, places or davincisdemonsaction. In this way, readers are drawn in and we can build on an already created framework. As an example, I titled my books with resonant words – Pentecost, Prophecy, Exodus – for this reason, because my own reader-radar pricks up when I hear certain phrases, and I want to attract readers of the same mindset.

(2) Make your characters fascinating with distinctive characteristics

When we create characters, they must be memorable, either physically or through their skills and behavior.

Leonardo is portrayed in the series with a habit of tapping his fingers in the air or on a table in a certain way when he’s having some inventive epiphany. It’s distinctive and anchors his genius brain into physical portrayal. The show also brilliantly depicts his inspiration by having line drawings from his notebooks come alive on the screen, for example, an early scene of Leo sketching birds as they fly from a cage.

davincisdemons2The villains in Demons are many, but Count Riario is particularly well characterized with his soft tone of voice and almost effeminate look as he tortures and murders his victims. A more complex antagonist is Lucrezia Donati, the lover of Lorenzo Medici and Leonardo, conflicted by her love for them while betraying them both to Rome every episode.

The minor characters in a novel should be a foil for the protagonists somehow. Leo’s friends provide support for his inventions and the trouble he gets into, as well as providing humor amongst dark themes. Zoroaster robs graves for Leo, busts him out of jail and has the funny one-liners. Nico is the loyal apprentice who suffers torture for his maestro and lets Leo experiment on him. Vanessa is the ex-nun whose single day as Leo’s lover makes her his forever. Each is distinctive and allows Leo to display his humanity as well as his genius.

(3) Use sex and violence to aid the story

The sex scenes and body count are high in every episode and Demons is full of topless women and murderous priests. As well as being a fun romp, they also serve the story and are true to the historic period in question. People want to escape, they want story that thrills and entices. That’s why you write romance, and that’s why I write thrillers. We love those aspects of plot and so do the readers, so use them well.

(4) Weave genres to enhance story

set1The advent of shopping online for books is fantastic for cross-genre story because people discover books in all kinds of ways. One title can be discovered in multiple categories on Amazon where once it would have languished on only one shelf in the physical bookstore. Yes, you write romance, but there may also be aspects of crime, fantasy or thriller in your writing.

Demons is a historical drama in one sense, but it also has aspects of fantasy in the supernatural angle of the Sons of Mithras and the quest for the Book of Leaves. It has romance in the love triangle between Lucrezia Donati, Leonardo and Lorenzo Medici. It is even a political thriller with the increasingly tension between Rome and Florence. Weaving these genres gives the show multiple levels of depth and interest for viewers.

(5) Open story hooks, use conflict and suspense

A series is always difficult, because there should be a complete story per episode and also an overarching story that keeps people interested over time. You need to open a nested series of story questions or hooks and then close them at different times, aiming to maintain suspense as long as possible.

In a recent episode, Leo and his friends attempt to rescue the tortured Abyssinian from the clutches of Vlad Dracula. This is an episode story arc that, as above, utilizes a resonant character and also aspects of the fantasy genre. The storyline also progresses the open hook of the search for the Book of Leaves, Leo’s overarching quest, and also the lost memories of his mother. At the same time, Lucrezia Donati is in Rome betraying her lovers yet again, building suspense around whether she will be caught by them or murdered by Riario first. Lorenzo is forging alliances with Urbino opening the question of war with Rome while we know he is being betrayed at that very moment.

So the series uses conflict at a personal level e.g. within Lucrezia at her betrayal; between characters e.g. Dracula and Leo over the Abyssinian; and at a political level e.g. between Florence and Rome.

The intricacies of the plot, characters and setting are what make Da Vinci’s Demons compelling writing. In the same way, we want to hook our readers and make them crave our next book, so hopefully you can use some of these tips in your writing.


What writing lessons can you take from your favorite TV shows or films? Please do leave a comment below as I’d love to hear what you think.


Join us tomorrow for Maria McKenzie and Engaging the Senses


Bio: Joanna Penn is the author of the ARKANE thrillers, Pentecost, Prophecy and Exodus. Find out more at Joanna’s site for writers has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for writers 3 years running and offers articles, audio and video on writing, publishing and book marketing. Connect with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn

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11 Responses to “5 Writing Tips From Da Vinci’s Demons with Joanna Penn”

  1. Hi Joanna,

    TV shows are a great way to illustrate how to write. The story has a time limit and has to wrap up in a half hour. It must intrigue or entertain people enough to tune in next week. If it’s a series, it has to leave enough strings dangling to keep the interest high. How I Met Your Mother does a good job. I also subscribe to your blog. Excellent advice and information are always there.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | June 19, 2013, 7:55 am
    • Thanks Mary Jo 🙂 I’ve heard Lee Child (author of Jack Reacher series) talk about how he only does one draft of his books – but he spent years in television and I am sure he internalized story structure because of that. You HAVE to hook people before they change channel – and the same in books these days …

      Posted by Joanna Penn | June 19, 2013, 3:01 pm
  2. “When we create characters, they must be memorable, either physically or through their skills and behavior.” Great advice! However, please please please do not try to make your characters memorable by making them insanely attractive. It doesn’t work! No one can relate to a character like that, and too many writers still try. It’s been done way too many times before, and it doesn’t work.

    Posted by Jessica Flory | June 19, 2013, 9:28 am
    • The actors are mostly pretty hot in Da Vinci to be honest – as they are in Game of Thrones mentioned below … and in many soaps (check out Jackson Avery in Grey’s Anatomy!!)
      So although I agree with you that characters shouldn’t be all insanely hot – sometimes we want to read about more attractive characters. I have to say that my kick-ass protagonist, Dr Morgan Sierra, can handle a gun but also looks good doing it 🙂

      Posted by Joanna Penn | June 19, 2013, 3:05 pm
  3. I’ve been trying to post a comment without success. Testing…testing…

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 19, 2013, 11:20 am
  4. Okay, try again:

    Great post! I’ve watched one or two episodes of this show, but it looks like I’ll have to go back and give it another chance.

    My favorite TV series is a British one – Midsomer Murders. I love the regular cast of characters, the twisted, totally convoluted plots and the satisfying endings. It can be gruesome but it always keeps me coming back for more.

    I never really considered taking lessons from my favorite shows – thanks for a brilliant suggestion!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 19, 2013, 11:21 am
    • Hi Becke,
      That’s great that you love Midsomer – it’s one of those English shows that you can never imagine actually happening in real life 🙂 We don’t all have gardens like that, for a start!
      But to manage to have that many murder/mysteries going on for years is also testament to great writing and giving the audience what they want. A recipe for success!

      Posted by Joanna Penn | June 19, 2013, 3:02 pm
  5. Hi Joanna!

    Awesome post! I haven’t seen DaVinci’s Demons, but I’ve just finished season 2 of Game of Thrones. It has shed a ton of light on how to write..especially what constitutes a hook or a turning point. I don’t know how many times I said “Holy Cow!” or words to that effect =) in each episode. Twists and turns I never expected. It’s given me a whole new perspective on my writing….

    Thanks for an eye opening post as well Joanna….I’ll be looking for DD on DVD!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 19, 2013, 2:46 pm
  6. Joanna…thanks so much for posting with us today – your books sound like an awesome read and are definitely on my “to buy” list along with Davinci’s Demons!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 19, 2013, 10:50 pm
  7. Hi Joanna,

    Thanks for the great tips.

    Screenwriter Shonda Rimes’ television series, Scandal, is one of my favorites because she’s created a huge cast of characters, who on their own, are misfits, but when they work together, they are amazing. The way the scenes are presented serve as a reminder that starting with action or placing the viewer/reader in the middle of the scene is much more effective and maintains the pace of the story.

    I’m a big Downton Abbey fan and I marvel at how Julian Fellowes is able to weave so many sub-plots and characters into the story without losing the pacing.

    Wonderful to have you with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 19, 2013, 10:51 pm

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