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Monday, November 20, 2023

How Excessive Stakes Maintain Readers (and Viewers) Invested


Image: a couple sits on the sofa, eating popcorn and watching television with rapt attention.

At present’s publish is by creator and ebook coach Susanne Dunlap (@susanne_dunlap).


I’ve currently been on a kick of re-reading and re-watching my favourite books, motion pictures, and TV collection. This has enabled me to essentially dig into not simply what drew me to them initially, however why I really like them and how the author achieved a outcome that pulled me in and saved me glued to the web page or the display screen.

Most not too long ago I’ve been rewatching Bridgerton on Netflix. Fantastic performing, swoon-worthy costumes and units, and pure romance in an idyllically built-in pretend Regency setting—a recipe for escapism.

Till you get to the prequel, Queen Charlotte, that’sWhereas it’s based mostly on Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books (and Quinn collaborated), it’s written by Shonda Rhimes, who served as producer on the primary two collection. In a departure from the escapist romance traits, Rhimes takes a reasonably preposterous (however imaginative) premise in a path that—to me—feels extra weighty and vital, in addition to extra compelling and dramatic. How does she do it?

The reply comes down to 1 key factor. Stakes.

First, a bit concerning the collection

Queen Charlotte remains to be at coronary heart a romance, with all the standard tropes. The meet cute, two protagonists beginning out at odds, coming collectively, then being wrenched aside alongside the way in which to reaching their final understanding. It’s an unequal partnership at first: the lofty king and the lesser overseas noble, pressured into an organized marriage.

However there’s far more to this story than the romance. Like the unique Bridgerton tales, it’s reasonably a scrumptious and intelligent combination of real historical past and sheer fantasy, taking as its “what if” the story of the mad King George III of England’s marriage to Charlotte of Mecklinburg Strelitz—a wedding that resulted in 13 offspring—and making Charlotte not solely somebody on a decrease social rung than the king, but additionally Black.

It’s the origin story, because it had been, for the built-in world of Bridgerton. What the Regency Bridgerton universe presents as a fait accompli—a very racially built-in society—Queen Charlotte exposes as an experiment that the dowager Princess Augusta discovered herself backed into out of necessity. It may have gone terribly unsuitable.

How does that have an effect on the stakes?

In a romance, the inner and exterior stakes are sometimes private—which doesn’t make them any much less actual or compelling. However in Queen Charlotte, the private stakes are amplified first by the historic actuality, then by the fictional premise on a societal stage.

The historic truth of George III’s insanity in actuality created perilous energy vacuums within the stratified world of eighteenth-century Britain. The destiny of a whole dynasty rested on the flexibility for the king to be suitably married and produce viable heirs who didn’t inherit his tendency to psychological sickness.

Within the Bridgerton ecosystem, the overseas spouse-to-be, as I stated, isn’t solely extra lowly, but additionally Black. This catches the courtroom without warning, and so they clear up the issue of public notion (admittedly stretching credulity) by pretending it was their intention all alongside, ennobling all the rich Black topics in Nice Britain (“the opposite aspect”) and welcoming them to the marriage. An “experiment.”

It is a welcome change, but it surely’s additionally fraught with peril: If issues go unsuitable in any means, the experiment could have failed and “the opposite aspect” dangers dropping all the pieces.

These two plot parts—the king’s insanity and the society-level experiment—set up one stratum of stakes. They’re attention-grabbing sufficient and sophisticated sufficient to energy a less complicated story. However Rhimes isn’t content material to cease there. As an alternative, she piles up and accelerates the stakes on a number of ranges: private, political, dynastic, romantic, and monetary. Even higher, all these high-stakes plotlines are timed to resolve, to traverse their completely different arcs, in live performance.

With multi-layered plots, timing is all the pieces

Whereas the origin story itself may have been the only foundation of the collection, as an alternative Rhimes provides us two parallel timelines. Queen Charlotte seems within the early timeline as her youthful self, the reluctant queen to be. Within the different timeline, she is a mature monarch, holding collectively a realm with a puppet king who’s unable to rule—and has no grandchildren to proceed the road, regardless of their brood of 13.

Charlotte’s character within the first two Bridgerton collection is that of a frosty, demanding queen whose principal function in life appears to be to reign over “the ton.” The king is a shadowy presence, solely showing in cameos that serve to humanize her a bit.

The subplot associated to the exterior stakes of “the opposite aspect” additionally echoes throughout each timelines. That’s the journey of Girl Danbury, confidante to the queen and shut pal of Violet Bridgerton within the newer timeline.

Within the earlier timeline, Girl Danbury turns into the conduit for the everlasting modifications that can outcome within the continuation of “the experiment.” She has essentially the most to realize or lose relying on the end result. Within the later timeline, she has a much less vital function, however nonetheless bears a secret that has a direct connection to her friendship with Violet Bridgerton.

A ballet of companions and plots

Maybe a very powerful factor of the origin-story timeline resides within the character of King George. Whereas he performed solely a minor function within the unique collection, in Queen Charlotte, he’s co-protagonist. He actually embodies the private, political, and dynastic stakes as a self-aware character who is aware of his situation renders him unfit to rule—and presumably harmful to his unsuspecting queen.

Rhimes cleverly retains the viewer at midnight at first about precisely why George behaves as he does towards his bride: avoiding her, maintaining himself separate, making her excruciatingly lonely as a stranger in a land the place she’s not allowed to forge her personal friendships. We have now an inkling—we all know he’s bought a psychological sickness, in spite of everything—however nonetheless, his actions appear extreme.

At exactly the purpose when his habits turns into inexplicable to the viewer, Rhimes provides us an episode solely from his POV. She peels again the curtain on what he’s been combating whereas Charlotte is feeling deserted. An excellent structural selection.

And what a wrestle. George submits to torturous therapies within the hopes that he will be cured. Why? Not only for the sake of his realm, however for the sake of his relationship. It’s clear at this level that he’s in love with Charlotte and cares for her sufficient to endure bodily ache to maintain her secure.

From this second, the stakes simply preserve getting greater:

  • Charlotte is pregnant. Will the toddler inherit his father’s dysfunction?
  • Girl Danbury’s husband dies. Are the newly bestowed titles to be hereditary, or will everybody on their aspect lose all the pieces in a single era?
  • Parliament is searching for proof that the king is match to reign. However George’s incapability to handle them threatens to have him deposed, leaving the matter of succession dangerously unresolved. With out George, the “experiment” dies too.

And if that isn’t complicated sufficient, there’s one other subplot involving the Queen’s man and the King’s man that foregrounds a further sticky contradiction: obligation and keenness.

A romance, with muscle

The coup de grace on the finish of Queen Charlotte is the way in which Rhimes not solely resolves the person plot traces, however how she brings the 2 timelines collectively. The deep understanding Charlotte and George attain within the earlier timeline bleeds into the later timeline in an sudden—and intensely poignant—means. And within the later timeline, Girl Danbury reveals her secret to Violet Bridgerton with out saying a phrase about it.

Rhimes makes use of complication not simply to maintain the viewer guessing, however to repeatedly amp up the stakes and make us increasingly more invested within the outcomes for the characters. When you care about Charlotte and George, it’s unimaginable to not observe them to the top.

Those that dismiss the romance style as formulaic and predictable miss the actual artistry that these tropes and conventions can allow. In Queen Charlotte, the mixture of Julia Quinn’s glittering fictional world and Shonda Rhimes’s intuition for tales that preserve you glued to the display screen episode after episode leads to one thing worthy of admiration by a storyteller in any style.

The underside line: Don’t accept the apparent and easy stage of stakes on your characters, historic or in any other case. Problem them, push them, give them significant—and excessive—stakes which are plausible within the context of their world.

Your readers will probably be enthralled.





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