Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a force of nature. She can write, act, and produce better than most people on this planet. So what lessons can we learn from her?
Maybe I'm just a dumb American, but it seems like Phoebe Waller-Bridge came from nowhere a few years ago. I watched Fleabag and was blown away. Then I tuned into Killing Eve and was shook it was the same writer.
And don't even get us started on the droid she played in Solo that hooks up with Lando.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is easily one of the greatest storytellers on the planet. And I wanted to learn everything I could from her career and work.
So here are ten writing lessons to help you kick ass in your pilots, features, and polishes.
1. Think one scene at a time that has a lot going on in it
What's Phoebe Waller-Bridge's best writing advice? In an interview with Deadline, Waller-Bridge said: “I always think there should be at least three things going on in one scene at the same time. I think every actor should know that there are three things this person is dealing with, and usually it’s like they’re having to eat lunch, or they’re having to deal with a really hot room. It’s something like that.”
I love this statement because it speaks to how deep each scene can be with tension, comedy, or both. Every character has specific wants and desires in each screen. Let them pop with layered motivations to each scene.
2. Don't let genre constrain you
As the maestro of drama, comedy, thrillers, and everything else, Waller-Bridge had this to say when talking about how she mashes different emotions into each story: "I think if you've got people on your side, if you've got people really laughing, you are able to make them cry."
This keys in on the fact that you, the writer, are in control of the audience. You don't need to stick to one thing or the other. You just need to produce your best work. So how can you seamlessly mashup genres?
Be aware of what you want the audience to feel at different moments.
3. Work in different mediums to stay fresh
One of the things I most admire about Waller-Bridge is that she doesn't pigeonhole herself into one area of writing. Fleabag came from a stage performance that she turned into a half-hour Amazon dramedy. Killing Eve is an espionage-murder thriller with lots of laughs. And she also rewrote Daniel Craig's latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die.
While Hollywood tries to keep people in one space, I think it's really fun to show a diverse voice and put the best work forward, no matter the genre. What can you do better than anyone else? Do that first. Then follow it up with everything else you have to say.
4. Surround yourself with believers
One of the more touching quotes from Waller-Bridge was this one she has about her mother: "I want to say thank you to my mother, who said to me, 'Darling, you can be whoever you want to be, so long as you are outrageous."
Hollywood is so damn hard. I wrote an article about finding my happiness here that I have to go back to at times to figure out if I still believe it (I do).
So many people in this industry are going to say "No." Make sure your friends and family that you share time with are people who encourage you and support you. That belief is what keeps you going when the pages won't come.
5. Embrace your own experiences
Waller-Bridge was just a misunderstood Catholic school girl coming to grips with religion, sexuality, and her own identity when she started writing. While her shows are not strictly autobiographical, the effort and care she puts into each story shows characters dealing with things she's addressed in her own life.
At the beginning of “Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect” by Claudia Hunter Johnson, there is an exercise the writer refers to as “Le Menu.” It asks the reader to fill out a survey to figure out what kinds of stories they should write. Hunter Johnson paraphrases her playwriting teacher, Sam Smiley, when talking about the "Le Menu."
“To create art works of many worth, each artist must have something to say, some values, some attitudes, some store of experience – a vision.”
So try to write five to ten answers to:
- What I love
- What I hate
- What I fear
- What I believe
- What I value
- What I want
- What I know about
- People who made a difference in my life
- Discoveries that made a difference in my life
- Decisions that made a difference in my life
These leading questions can help you learn about yourself and decide how they can change over time within the story and character.
6. Write a character for someone specific
Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote Andrew Scott’s Fleabag character, the Hot Priest, especially for the Sherlock actor.
“She wrote the part for him,” Fleabag producers Harry and Jack Williams told. “Wrote it with him in mind, and wrote it and developed it with him. You can see that on screen.”
You may have a friend who is an actor or actress, flatter them by making a role for them. Or you may just yearn for someone famous to embody a role you put everything you have into. Make sure your agent or manager gets the script and a personal letter to them expressing this notion.
The more specific you can make a role, the better chance you have of attracting the cast of your dream.
7. Know when to leave a project
Sad but true, Fleabag ended after its second season. The decision was made by Waller-Bridge so she could pursue working on other projects. This is an incredibly bold way to move on from a hit show, but one we wish we saw more. Leaving two seasons of perfection is high art.
Waller-Bridge said, "It does feel like the story is complete. It’s so nice to hear that so many people loved it. I’m a bit like, ‘Aw, damn it, maybe she shouldn’t have waved goodbye at the end,'” she added. “But it does feel right. It feels right to go out on a high, and you can’t get higher than this.”
Sometimes you need to explore new themes, characters, and ideas. Be brave and get out of your own way.
8. Push boundaries
So much of Fleabag and Killing Eve deal with what we once thought were taboos. Perhaps their biggest contribution to society is that they get people talking about these foolish morays and sharing their experiences.
They also bring an inherent value to the work and make people take notice.
If you like these shows, you have to have the conversation of why more places don't explore these aspects of characters.
And that makes me excited.
In an interview with NPR, Waller-Bridge had this to say:
"I remember when Fleabag first came out, and the idea that she was -- 'cause a funny reaction happened to Fleabag was -- the TV show -- was that people were talking about it like there was an awful lot of nudity in it or very gratuitous sex in it. And actually, there's no nudity in it. And you don't see any sex. Like, you don't see it very graphically. But the language is very graphic. And the fact that, I think, I'm looking straight down the barrel of the camera and that you stay on her, she's talking you through these moments. So when -- there's a moment when I'm masturbating with my boyfriend next to me, and it just feels, like, really, really intimate, I think, because we held on it. But then the show was written about like it was the filthiest, most, like, exposing..."
Push buttons and ask for permission later. Your voice and perspective matter.
9. Consult experts
One of the most maddening things about new and old writers is that they dig into professions or jargon without consulting or interviewing the people who use them every day. This leads to a lack of believability on the page and also authenticity.
I truly admire that Waller-Bridge wanted her priest to be authentic to his world as much as ours. So she did real research to make sure he popped off the screen and became sort of a phenomenon on the internet.
"I spoke to a monk quite extensively (laughs)," she said. "And he'd also been a priest. And it was very important to me that this priest was -- that the priest in Fleabag was portrayed as a fully multidimensional person and that his - that we could really feel his struggle and we really believed in who he was. And a big part of that for me was addressing that he's a sexual person because, you know, he's human, and that he will have some relationship to sex and he will have some drive, I believed, this character. So and I think it's really important to consider that about every person. Like, (laughter) everyone in the world."
10. Treat your female characters better
One of the best quotes I've seen from Waller-Bridge, from The Mary Sue, about working on Bond is as follows:
“There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not [the Bond franchise] is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women, I think that’s bollocks. I think he’s absolutely relevant now. It has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to this character.”
As a writer, she is clearly very aware of what the task is on the page. Waller-Bridge is not trying to change James Bond as a person. But she understands that better movies make women more three-dimensional and motivated.
This means when she's polishing the script and possibly writing the next installment, she's trying to build those characters out to help the story.
The more care we put into characters the better the end product.
What's next? Write the best midpoints!
A screenplay's midpoint is either where your story engine stalls out and dies or where you kick it into a new gear you didn't have and race to a perfect finish.
Obviously you want to do the latter. But how? Click here to find out.