Breaking The Script (Phoebe Waller-Bridge — Writing Matches Tone)

Something I hear fairly often when it comes to screenwriting is how the style you write in ought to match the tone of the piece. This is, well, really obnoxiously confusing if proper examples aren’t provided. First of all, what even is style when it comes to the strictly formatted screenplay? Second, doesn’t a story’s tone constantly shift? I mean, any story that only has you feel a single emotion all the way through isn’t all too successful, right?

So, in trying to figure out just what it means to match tone and style in a script, I sought out a writer which, from what I read of her, knows exactly how to shift style along with tone. This is, of course, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

With shows like Killing Eve and Fleabag, Waller-Bridge undoubtedly has one of the strongest and most unique voices among current TV writers. She does an extraordinary job of setting up audience expectations only to hit them with what they’d least expect, all while maintaining a sense of naturality. We see this in the surprisingly funny Killing Eve, as well as the surprisingly tragic Fleabag. It’s almost as if she chooses a premise exclusively on her ability to subvert it.

That’s all to say that she’s amazing at switching tones on-screen. So my question is, how does that look like on a script? Luckily, there’s free access to at least three of her scripts, each of which I’ll link below:

Killing Eve, Episode 101: https://www.scriptslug.com/script/killing-eve-101-nice-face-2018

Fleabag, Episode 101: https://www.scriptslug.com/script/fleabag-101-episode-1-1-2016

Fleabag, Episode 201: https://www.scriptslug.com/script/fleabag-201-episode-2-1-2019

Tricks of the Script:

Comedy through Premise: Often-times it can be hard to really grasp the jokes being told when you’re reading them. In Fleabag, so many of these jokes are based in timing, which can be hard to succinctly relay over script. I mean, it’s not like you can say “He immediately follows her line with ______”. It would be awkward and come off as an attempt to explain the joke- something you never really want to do. What Waller-Bridge does is ingrain the timing of the joke into the cadence of her dialogue. Take this opening scene from Fleabag…

The comedic premise of this scene is that Fleabag has done this type of thing before, and will predict with hilarious precision the actions of her bed-mate. This premise is executed perfectly in the script thanks to the lack of action lines, which would naturally slow down the rapid prediction-result setup of this joke.

Irony in the Line: Using the previous example, look to the first action line — “He is sat over her like a mother caring for a child.” Though this could’ve been written any hundreds of ways, by painting her bed-mate as a “mother” and insinuating Fleabag is a “child”, Waller-Bridge creates a whole new level of comedy. The lines, though funny thanks to their ironic context, give a small hint as to what will await us. Fleabag, in many ways, is a child who, tragically, is looking for guidance. (To note: it’s entirely plausible I’m reading way too into this and am just geeking out about Phoebe Waller-Bridge.)

Stating The Obvious: When writing, you’re often expected to abide by the maxim “show, don’t tell”. And though it’s often better to show the reader a moment rather than explain it to them, sometimes the nuance doesn’t always come through. Sometimes, you just have to take a route like this…

The lines “In the absence of the priest…” and “relieved to have something to talk about…” are both technically unfilmable. Regardless, they really help tie together the exact sort of tension we imagine in the scene. Without the lines, we could’ve pieced together the conflict at play, but by affording the scene a brief context in these lines, we are thus able to view every line with a specific kind of tone.

Naming Your Characters: One of the funniest things to notice in Waller-Bridge’s scripts is the names she’ll give various characters. Some go entirely unnamed (Dad, Priest, etc.) while still maintaining recurring roles, while some only appear for an episode or two but get a distinct impact thanks to characterization in the name. Take this character, for example…

Needy Waitress was introduced before this scene, and yet the fact that she returns and remains named “Needy Waitress” furthers the character’s design in the script. Again, we get a clear understanding of exactly how each line is said and, similarly, how each character will view her. By giving your one-note characters a name which entirely describes them, you allow the reader a chance to rest and further enjoy your script.

Pace Matches Emotion: One of the most fascinating things I encounter when reading scripts is how different writers approach the “shocking” moments. Sometimes, a ten-second moment will take up a full page with the amount of detail writers afford it. Other times, they will barely mention the moment. Here’s one way Waller-Bridge approaches this…

Leoluca’s death is written with shocking indifference, and though one might think it should be afforded more time or build-up, the way it is written is a perfect mirror of how Villanelle goes about her killings. She carries on with plain apathy and views each death as relatively uninteresting. If this is the attitude she takes, why should the reader see the death as something of importance? It’s written entirely from the POV of Villanelle, ultimately allowing the audience a deeper connection to the fascinating character.

In Summary…

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a really great writer. Though there’s no end-all, be-all way to write, her shifting style allows her to subtly portray a wide number of emotions, tones, and conflicts to the reader. By taking care to write almost exclusively from her protagonist’s POV, she allows the reader to fully engage with her characters in a manner that is fresh, natural, and fun.

A writer! What am I writing about? Well, a lot of things, most of them being related to Screenwriting. Hope you like what you see!