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October 13, 2023

How to Write Like Jed Mercurio

Jed Mercurio has captivated audiences with his intense, high-stakes British TV dramas like Line of Duty and Bodyguard. His shows are known for their breakneck pacing, intricate plotting, and snappy dialogue.

In this post, we'll break down Mercurio's unique style and techniques you can use to infuse your own scripts with that gripping, plot-driven style. Mercurio is a master of layered storytelling, misdirection, and escalating tension.

There's a reason why Line of Duty was the most watched drama in terms of audience on the BBC, ever.

Be careful if you're writing is as succcesful as Mercurio's latest dramas, you might just find yourself being issued with a regulation 15 notice.

The Mercurio formula

Jed Mercurio's shows follow a distinct formula that keeps viewers hooked. His dramas revolve around a central mystery or investigation that builds episode-by-episode. For example, Line of Duty centers on an anti-corruption police unit trying to uncover a mole in the force. Bodyguard focuses on a protection officer tasked with defending a controversial politician.

The plot usually kicks off with a dramatic inciting incident - think the ambush that kills Undercover Officer John Corbett in Line of Duty or the train explosion in Bodyguard. From there, the stakes continuously escalate as characters race to solve the mystery. Red herrings and action sequences keep the pacing fast.

Line of Duty series 3, episode 6: BBC Two hit explodes into action in a  pulse-pounding finale
The finale of Line of Duty season 3 will keep you guessing

A signature Mercurio move is linking characters in unexpected ways. In Bodyguard, Sergeant Budd's affair with the Home Secretary he's protecting adds layers of conflict. In Line of Duty, DCI Roz Huntley's relationship with a pivotal suspect increases the tension. These connections add depth and big reveals down the line.

Mercurio also excels at meticulous plotting with payoffs seasons in the making. Storylines are layered and interwoven. Tiny clues scattered early on become smoking guns by the finale - take how the mystery fourth man's spelling error cracks the case wide open in Line of Duty Season 6. The twisty narrative keeps devoted fans theorizing and guessing wrong.

Craft complex plots

One of Mercurio's greatest strengths is crafting intricate, multi-layered plotlines full of twists and misdirection. Here are some techniques he uses to keep viewers guessing.


Use non-linear sequences like flashbacks and flashforwards to reveal key details out of order. This adds complexity and surprises, like seeing who officer Corbett was meeting before his death or whether Lindsay Denton really came to an agreement with the OCG.

Red herrings

Plant red herrings to divert attention from the real culprit or solution. Have suspects who seem guilty but reveal that this ultimately misdirection. Think about the level of suspicion placed on Hastings in Series 5 even though he is the show's protagonist.

DS Steve Arnott in Line of Duty s03e06 wearing plain clothes and being sent into a police cell
The protagonist Steve Arnott finds himself in hot water in season 3 of Line of Duty

Secret relationships

Reveal unexpected connections between characters for big payoffs, like Hastings' secret ties to Corbett in Line of Duty Season 5.

Hidden motivations

Keep some character motivations hidden, only revealing their true agenda later. This maintains intrigue. Think about DCI Jo Davidson in Season 6 of Line of Duty and what her true motivations are for getting involved with the Organized Crime Group (OCG).

Subtle clues

Sprinkle in clues subtly so attuned fans can play detective. But don't make it too obvious early on. The golf clubs in the back of Buckells' office is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it refrence that could indicate where his true loyalties lie.

The big reveal

Save big reveals and plot twists for cliffhangers and finales to maximize shock value. Every season of Line of Duty ends with a shock revelation as we uncover more and more about the operations of the Organized Crime Group (OCG). The build up to this is usually the long sometimes 15 minute interviews under Regulation 15 that occur when a police officer is under investigation for breaking protocol.

Meta narrative

Link each scene, episode and season directly to the central mystery so narrative feels tight and tense. At the start of Season 2 of Line of Duty we think we are starting a whole new case but by the end of the first episode we can be in no doubt that everything we thought we knew at the end of season 1 is now up in the air, as the witness from the witntess protection programe killed is revealed to be the antagonist from season 1: Tommy Hunter.

With intricate plotting and misdirection, you can create watercooler moments with huge dramatic payoffs. Use Mercurio's blueprint for keeping audiences hooked while maintaining control of the complex narrative.

Snappy and realistic dialouge

The tense, rapid-fire dialogue is one of the most visceral elements of Mercurio's writing. Even simple exchanges in his shows are layered with subtext and propel the plot forward.

To emulate his talent for snappy, memorable dialogue, keep exchanges short, direct, and to the point. Avoid unnecessary small talk or pleasantries that don't reveal new information. Use frequent interruptions and overlaps to quicken the pace. One character cutting off or talking over another adds realism and immediacy. Vary sentence structure as well - mix short, blunt phrases with longer retorts to avoid repetitive patterns.

Mercurio's dialogue often includes context-appropriate jargon and slang to make the words ring true to the setting. In Line of Duty, street terminology like "bent coppers" flavors the dialogue between the OCG whislt police officers speak of SIT Reps - Situation Reports and Gold Command - the line of command for authorising fatal shots. Avoid making up fictional slang though. Invented terms can take viewers out of the moment. Do your research.

Each exchange should move the plot forward or unveil something about the characters. As Ted Hastings says, "There's no peace for the wicked." This reveals his perspective on the investigation without him stating it. The dialogue has purpose beyond just pleasant banter.

By keeping the dialogue clipped, confrontational, and full of tension, you can emulate the nerve-wracking momentum of Mercurio's scripts. The pacing, realism, and sense of urgency in the dialogue brings his shows to life.

Study Mercurio and you'll become an overnight success

Jed Mercurio has mastered the art of crafting complex, gripping dramas in different genres that captivate audiences. By studying his techniques for plotting tense mysteries, writing authentic dialogue, and continuously escalating stakes, you can infuse your scripts with that signature Mercurio edge.

While raw talent plays a role, Mercurio's style can be broken down into definable methods you can emulate. Strategic plotting, misdirection, economical dialogue, and high-pressure stakes are hallmarks of his shows like Line of Duty and Bodyguard.

To aid the intricate process of screenwriting, tools like Arc Studio provide useful assistance. Arc Studio is screenwriting software designed for TV and film writers. It helps you outline and navigate complex plots with digital index cards and relationship mapping. Handy collaboration tools allow you to co-write scripts and share feedback. Useful formatting assistance polishes dialogue formatting so you can focus on snappy phrasing vs. proper indenting.

With dedication to tense storytelling and tools like Arc Studio supporting your process, you can craft your own gripping, Mercurio-esque dramas. Just remember - plot is king!


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How to Write Like Jed Mercurio
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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