Writing tips from Bridgerton (how to start your novel’s first chapter)

To start off, let me acknowledge I’m writing this about the first episode of season two – so some of these tips may be better for a sequel, rather than a first book in a series. It means, for one, that they can spend less time getting to know the characters and making them sympathetic.

But at the same time, it may have been a challenge to invent fresh drama when all the dramatic events of season one have been resolved. But let’s ignore that for now. I actually remarked on the writing of season one but never posted it… here’s that article.

But here’s a recap of Season One, Episode one.

It’s worth breaking down the elements, to notice all the things that make it work. It is busy, for a novel, and complex. There’s a lot going on. But it does a great job of introducing simmering conflict, which is what your book needs to do. Intrigue is unresolved conflict to unanswered questions. So you don’t need to fill in all the backstory gaps. You need to show the oppositions and tensions that exist or will exist right now, based on new or current circumstances.

Also to be clear, I’m discussing the Netflix series and not the original book series itself by Julia Quinn; to see how the novels have been adapted, you should read those first, although you could argue that Netflix needs a stronger and cleaner hook, sharpening the edges.

#1. Expectations

Bridgerton announces that it has been a long break but they’re back for a new season of match-making; speculating whether the anonymous gossip-writer Lady Whistledown will reappear.

The queen needs to choose a diamond, scrutinizing all the eligible young ladies coming out for flaws before bestowing her favor. This season’s main protagonist (kind of, not really) is Eloise, the younger sister of last season’s diamond, who had a messy and torrid relationship but are now happily ensconced out of the picture for now.

So she is forced to announce herself as available while being awkward and hating the process, while her older brother is determined to find a perfect wife to breed good children.

#2. New elements

The new characters are a family who left years ago in a scandal, and have now returned. These we see sympathized, which is important, so we learn their backstory, even though its sworn to secrecy. Also it comes out as a forced confession – because all valuable information should come at a cost.

The queen’s old friend personally hosts and vouches for them, and even puts in a good word. The younger sister is agreeable but the older one isn’t – she’s too old for marriage anyway and likes her freedom. But more importantly, it’s a role, not a choice: I’m not exactly clear on the details, but they had different fathers I think, so the younger daughter can save the family name, but not the older one.

But there’s another level of intrigue: the elder daughter is being particularly dismissive about matches. While hoping to humor her little sister into the idea of marrying for love, she also holds a private concern – she’ll only be given a good dowry if she marries someone with a title. From my understanding, her grandparents want to buy their way back into society, after their earlier disgrace.

#2. Stakes

It’s not just about the conflict and intrigue, it’s about what matters on a personal level. You have to show what your characters believe in and hope for, and why. You need to see what matters to them. Otherwise the conflicts will fall flat or they will cave easily when opposed; or else seem overly dramatic and stubborn if they persist.

The older sister needs to save her family, while also protecting her little sister, who she think is perfect. She’s spent eight years raising her to be perfect, for this moment. So even if she seems flippant and casual in her own regard, because she thinks her fate is settled, she cares deeply about finding the right match.

Meanwhile the older brother (of the Bridgerton family) needs to find a countess; he’s taken his new responsibilities a little too seriously and is half-hoping that the queen makes the decision easy for him by naming a diamond – something that his friend teases him about when she seems to take a shine to his sister (Eloise).

3. Meetcute / enemies to lovers

It starts with a casual meeting between the new arrival (Kate Sharma, the protective older sister) and the brother (Anthony Bridgerton). She is racing a horse, he chases her down, they exchange witty barbs but not their names. Also it was a secret; she’d snuck out and promised there weren’t witnesses (you can also add easy drama by prohibiting the thing).

But then she overhears him at a party listing all the things he expects out of a wife, and she (thinking of her sister) insults him and storms away; he’s obviously shocked to be spoken to so boldly.

4. Diametrical opposition

Now that all the setup is in place, the worst thing that can happen, does happen. The queen chooses the young new arrival (Edwina Sharma) as her diamond. This is great, though there’s that family secret in the way about her needing a certain kind of man. Lady Danbury made it happen by prompting the queen to shake things up with an intriguing choice, triggering her vanity.

SO the dominoes fall.

  • Anthony Bridgerton declares that he WILL marry her (absolute conviction in goal).
  • Her older sister her FORBIDS her from speaking to him.

Can you see how powerful this is?

Not to mention the already simpering romantic tension between Kate and Anthony, which I’m sure will become Big Drama later (remember, Kate’s one and only goal is to see her sister Edwina happily wed – so that needs to be the one thing she can’t have easily; or her own desires need to threaten her core purpose).

So now, we assume, Kate will violently resist falling for Anthony, not only because he’s a jerk, but also because he’s after her sister – her protectiveness and desire to put her sister’s marriage first will conflict with her own feelings.

Meanwhile, Anthony, we assume, will fall for Kate despite that her little sister is the smart, logical choice – perfect according to his own list – and will fight against his noble duty and his actual feelings; as well as his reputation as a gentleman, which he (only recently) started to care about more. His list is what will drive him to keep pursuing Edwina, through adversity like her fiery old sister and his potential feelings for her. It’s also why she needed to be the diamond; there is no other choice. He needs her.

5. Foreshadowing

The episode ends with a twist. While earlier, Lady Whistledown goads the queen into making her choice, now she dismisses the whole tradition as ridiculous. Bold and scandalous, to attack the queen, but she’s ready: “it seems this season, my diamond must do more than just simply sparkle.”

So it’s not over with her choice. Now she’s personally on the line. The queen is invested in this romance, and this potential wedding, and now that she’s involved, she’ll use her power to get what she wants and destroy anyone who opposes her.

While the story was already dramatic, it didn’t have this kind of absolute social pressure.

For side-plots, we have, mostly, Penelope Featherington (Lady Whistledown’s real identity) and her friendship with Eloise Bridgerton – the “kind of” protagonist I mentioned earlier. It’s her story, maybe, because she will be the one forced to change and grow, the most uncertainty, not on a romantic level but on a purpose level; and also because she’s the link between everything, and a lot of the drama is going to be around Penelope’s trying to keep her identity a secret from Penelope – which is harder now that Penelope is “out” too and they can spend time together. She’s also, remember, the one trying to live up to the expectations of her very special sister.

Penelope has started earning money from her secret anonymous gossip column; while her mother has been trying to sell household items because their fate is very much in question – a distant relative inherited their house and arrives, young and handsome, and stirs things up a bit.

The main characters get critical, identity-shattering conflicts that will destroy them.

The side-characters get urgent distractions that must be dealt with rationally, and create conflict that will deepen that of the main characters (or, give them a necessary reflection point that helps them make difficult decisions).

For example: (speculation) Maybe Penelope has to decide whether to help her family with the money she’s raised, even if it means sharing her secret. Or perhaps she is enticed to give it away selflessly to help a friend (maybe she gives it to Eloise Bridgerton, who has already inspired her to use her voice to write powerful messages).

Or maybe they fight because Penelope has kept this secret so long, and Eloise is angry because she trusted and loved her, and feels betrayed and alone, which could boil into more intimate conversations. This conflict may impress upon her older brother; Anthony gives her life advice that later helps him make a key decision, as she repeats it back to him.

Or she might write something – such as the background scandal – about the queen’s choice Edwina, which would put both Kate and Anthony against her; or discover a dark secret and need to confess or tell one of them either way. A lie that splits them apart or a truth that unites them.

So that’s it: 5 ways to start your book.

There’s a lot I’m leaving out, but these are the mean dramatic devices used in the first episode of season two. Whether or not you’re writing romance, you can use this writing checklist to improve your draft.

PS. Sneak peek. Now that the brewing tensions are established, we get to deepen the setting and then hit some hard emotional backstory. Anthony is the antagonist for Kate… in episode two the antimony deepens and hardens; it must get worse first or resolving it would be easy. The shell cracks as Anthony begins to change; realizing that his deceit is causing the rift, he becomes self-aware enough not to go through with a cheap lie about his poetry skills and speak the truth.

In episode three we see some fun and games to provide levity, followed by a moment of humorous intimacy as they fall in the mud together, immediately spoiled by a reminder of his father’s death which we visited earlier, to make us – like Kate – begin to feel sympathy with Anthony, despite his surly demeanor. Yet while he’s still seeking Kate’s approval, his sister (Daphne, the star of season one) is already starting to realize that they share a true passion and may be a better match; something she recognizes after her own challenges.

And yet, Anthony doubles down. It’s not just that he favors duty over passion or is disinterested in love, we find out through more reveals. After his father died, his mother went into a deep depression. She was barely even there; he was cursed to remember. So at his mom’s (and sister’s) prompting on the importance of love, he says “love will have no place in my marriage. I seek an amiable partnership, with no heartbreak.” So his choices are deeply internalized trauma; they define him – he has a rule he must not break (which must of course, get broken). And also make him more honorable and loveable (“I could never be the cause of such pain”).