Phoebe Waller-Bridge: How retired screenwriting tools helped cement her place as one of the most exciting new writers

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the talk of the town. With two-Emmy nominated hit shows and Hollywood at her feet, Waller-Bridge has cemented her place as one of the most exciting screenwriters around. 

Her hit show Fleabag (which she wrote and stars in) has captured audiences around the globe. A painfully middle-class 20-something, living in London navigating love and life. It’s terrible people and broken lives. But its utterly riveting. Emotionally complex. And hilarious. 

In Fleabag Waller-Bridge uses two retired narrative devices. Breaking the fourth wall (when a character appears to address the viewer directly) and flashbacks. From a screenwriting perspective, her use of both tools shows her genius. She shows you how good they can be, then walks away from them. 

The Fourth Wall 

When Fleabag breaks the fourth wall she invites us into her chaotic emotional world. She talks quickly, dipping in and out of conversations to give us some context. She’s talking to the viewer but not at them. Her relationship with the camera is a dance, sometimes the camera is a friend, sometimes its a mirror. In season 2, viewers are left shocked when another character breaks the fourth wall. When the Preist asked, “Where did you just go?” after Fleabag breaks the fourth wall – she’s left wondering who she has really been talking to all this time. 

Flashbacks and time slippage

Flashbacks can be seen as lazy storytelling. Yet Waller-Bridge artfully unloads an elegant use of the narrative tool. Her flashbacks last only a few seconds – gradually gaining context and filling out the story. By the second series, short flashbacks are almost gone and time slippage is welcomed. With time slippage, the audience is given insight into key moments in Fleabag’s life. These richer, longer flashbacks suggest Fleabag is moving forward by accepting the past. By the of the series, flashbacks are replaced with visual and narrative echos of past moments. Waller-Bridge has let go of these narrative tools and leaves us wondering what screenwriting device she’ll reshape next. 

Disney and the lost art of imagination



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