15 screenwriting lessons from Bridgerton

Specifically from episode 1.2, “Shock and Delight“!

I am a recent convert to Shondaland, thanks to Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass on screenwriting. (Curse you MasterClass & your impeccable marketing).

Shonda is brilliant, and my heart swooned soon as I heard of her new show, curiously titled Bridgerton. I spend most days with my head in a book, so tbh, I have not watched Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal until that MasterClass. I also just learned this morning that Bridgerton has been translated into a million languages and sold a billion copies, so I’m clearly paying catch up here.

But one thing I’m good at is recognizing a well-crafted story.

By the second episode of Bridgerton, my thumbs were typing like mad on my phone as I stared wide-eyed at the screen.

As a writer, there’s a lot to learn from this series. Here are some of the tips and tricks I picked up:

15 screenwriting lessons from Bridgerton Season 1, Episode 2

*** Spoilers!! ***

  1. Clip your dialogue (and enjoy a promenade)
    • “Shock and Delight” opens with a lot of shock — a fatal childbearing scene and an unimaginably cruel reaction. The next scene balances that darkness with some banter and plotting. Simon Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) and Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) “promenade” in front of everyone with the intent of stirring intrigue that the two most alluring people in town might marry. Since they’re under scrutiny, they speak to each other in very short dialogue; they’re also not fond of each other at this point, so the nature of their relationship results in curt exchanges. The clipped speech aligns with the pace of their walk, and together a subtle suspense grows, like the audience is also having trouble breathing naturally against constant surveillance.
  2. Whisper
    • If someone can hardly hear you, they have to lean in. Whispers, especially after you set an enticing plot, can act as pulleys that compel your audience to come closer. When the Featherington girls (anchored by Nicola Coughlan of Derry Girls) hear that Miss. Marina Thompson (Ruby Parker) is pregnant, they whisper about the development for about a page. This doesn’t feel staged as their buzz-kill of a mother is in the room: they have to keep quiet, even as the answer to these questions (like where do babies come from) is for them a matter of life or death. The urgency in their voice creates curiosity in our minds. Whispers are unique to plays and television, and having written mostly fiction and memoir, I envy film’s ability to showcase decibels and timbre. With this in mind, I’ll be adding a couple whispered scenes in a screenplay I’m currently working on.
  3. Dramatic irony
    • You can gently tease your characters; it makes them more endearing. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something very clearly that the character is clueless about. Eloise Bridgerton (Nicola Coughlan) and Penelope Featherington (Claudia Jessie) are young women who don’t know where babies come from. When Eloise shares the news that Miss. Thompson is pregnant (during a promenade, of course), Penelope panics, and desperately questions how she can avoid a similar fate. Their frantic questioning is both hilarious and poignant. Hilarious in such sincere questioning over a basic fact of life well understood by young people in the 21st century; poignant that for much of the Victorian period, this basic knowledge was denied to young women, even as they were expected to be courted.
  4. Let minor characters explicate the stakes
    • In soaps and action movies, your eyes may start to roll when the main character restates a plot point (“The Evil Man set up a bomb to explode at 2:12pm!”) or is really on the nose about the stakes (“I will leave Sandro if he chooses his step-daughter’s best friend’s barista for his fourth wife!”). Okay, that may work in genres where people want to just focus on the action or eye candy, but for a show that wants to stand on the quality of its writing and appeal more to the intellect, Fabio is not enough. In Bridgerton, one of the younger children asks/outbursts who’s coming for dinner. This opens the need for the adults to gossip over the Duke and talk about what’s at stake. For me, this is fare more enjoyable and subtle then a major character rehashing the plot.
  5. Close off your characters escape routes
    • When Daphne’s mother, Violet (Ruth Gemmell) says “There is only the duke.” CHILLS
  6. Foreshadow by placing a beloved character in a situation that we’ve seen to be ill-fated
    • “Shock and Delight” opens with a grueling childbirth scene. Shortly after that scene, we learn that Marina Thompson is pregnant. Based on the cruel actions of those surrounding Marina, the script is shaped to imply that Marina may endure a similar (if not identical) fate to Sarah, the woman who died shortly after delivery, and who we later learn is the Duke’s mother. Whether Marina will avoid the fate from the same situation is tbd, and keeps the audience guessing.
  7. Expand a relationship with emotional backstory
    • The only reason we know the name of the Duke’s mother is because the badass that is Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) says her name before she passes. The main story of Daphne’s suitors continues as this backstory to the Duke and all he owes to Lady Danbury becomes the subplot. As a young boy, his vicious father outcasts him for stuttering and seemingly possessing a feeble mind. Lady Danbury tracks him down, educates him, and convinces him to act boldly against society rather than be scared and shriveled by it. Given that backstory, the emotional terrain between Lady Danbury and Duke Hasting expands, to the point that I felt a flit of happiness each time we saw them together in the present moment/ the main plot line.
  8. Don’t fear rhyme
    • Around 34:50, there’s a “married/buried” repartee that was delightful. The spare was between Lord Berbrooke (who’s basically Mitch McConnell and wants to force Daphne to marry him) and Anthony Bridgerton (Daphne’s older brother who only recently came to his senses that Berbrooke is a scumbag). I feel like a lot contemporary writers want to avoid potential cringes and skip out on rhyme. But used sparingly, rhyme can be an entertaining, insightful, and surprising way to build character. When Anthony (played by God incarnate Jonathan Bailey) rhymes Berbrooke’s insult, we see Anthony’s wit, backbone, and genuine care for his younger sister.
  9. Enable your villain to be their own hero
    • In talking with the Duke, Lord Nigel Berbrooke says he doesn’t negotiate with a horse on what it wants when he brings it to market; the same should go for choosing a wife. It’s revolting, but of course, Berbrooke doesn’t know that. To him, this is common sense, and he should be fawned for producing such an aperçu. He’s a useful model for writers: let your characters be revolting in terms they view as most outstanding.
  10. Red herrings
    • Red herrings are clues that turn out to be distractions. Red herrings are literally smoked fish, and back in the 18th century, English hunters spread them around the grounds to test which hounds would fall for the decoy and which would stay on track. In Bridgerton, one potential red herring is Marina Thompson’s letters. Where are they from? The stamps look like they’re from the queen; but could they be from the father who banished her? Are they love letters from the Duke [who we know by now as Simon]? Are they from a lover we have yet to meet? To find out what these letters mean and if they’re important at all, we’ll have to keep watching.
  11. Vary the length of your scenes
    • I love scripts that pair a short scene with a much longer one. I picture someone playing the accordion: it looks (and sounds) more enthralling when the musician compresses then suddenly extends their instrument. Bridgerton does this well several times over, but one of my favorite juxtapositions was a brief clip of Simon boxing (and being punched in the face) then a long lead up to Violet Bridgerton’s visit with the queen. The queen’s snuffbox — my neighbors likely heard me laughing.
  12. Acknowledge stereotypes
    • When Violet Bridgerton decides to rescue her daughter from marrying Lord Berbrooke, she declares that she will do so by leaning into what women do best: talk. A part of me bristled at this indulgence of sexism, but Violet’s strategy was ultimately a clever leveraging of social relations given her confinement. The academic in me kept thinking of Laura Huang’s Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage and jurisprudence as studied by Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey in The Commonplace of Law. Especially the concept of legality: how people can follow the “law” while subtly subverting it to fit their wants. Characters who demonstrate a flexible legality are clever and, because they never technically break the law, remain admirable.
  13. Give your main characters people who light up at seeing them
    • As you can probably tell, I don’t read that many romance tales. BUT, even I gushed when Simon and Daphne danced. I loved watching everyone smile and light up at seeing the handsome pair. This included Lady Danbury, whose emotional tie to Simon we know well because of that subplot, so her smile carried an extra punch. I suppose this is just a more artful form of that basic rule of attraction: we like those who are already liked by everyone else in the room.
  14. Let your characters actions be the lesson
    • To quote my man the Roman poet Horace, literature is dulce et utile, i.e. sweet and useful. In pursuit of those qualities, literature (including television and plays here) is not didactic. Rather than telling a lesson, it’s often more enjoyable to show a lesson, or let the character’s action embody that lesson/moral/functional/useful quality of the story. In “Shock and Delight,” one major lesson is that you’ll find love when you’re not expecting it. This is a continuance of Pride and Prejudice, and I love seeing it continually pop up everywhere, Holidate being one fun example (haters — come at me).
  15. End a subplot/flashback with the most recent past
    • What an ending! That plausible twist that explains why Simon doesn’t want to marry is unique, unexpected, and is the key that justifies all of his actions up to this point. Knowing what he’s been through, we’re far more likely to root for him for the rest of the season. The subplot/flashback reminded me of Orange is the New Black: use a subplot/flashback to expand character, up the stakes for them, and end the flashback close enough to the present so that both timelines merge and seem inevitably connected.

You can guess what I’ll be binging this New Years 🙂

You can watch Bridgerton here & read an interview with showrunner Chris Van Dusen here

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