– Guest post by Geoffrey D. Calhoun
Co-writing is something that every screenwriter needs to do in their career at least once. It will improve your writing by leaps and bounds. There’s nothing wrong with being a lone wolf, but you miss out on the beauty of collaboration. The moment when you are in sync with a writing partner is a feeling that is difficult to describe. It’s like the Tibetan proverb of explaining the taste of an orange. You can’t. You have to taste the orange. It’s experiential.
Like any relationship, getting to the point of sympatico with a fellow screenwriter can be difficult. There are plenty of horror stories out there about abandoned projects because writers couldn’t work together. The secret to successful co-writing is to treat it like a partnership and not an arrangement.
1. Collaboration Contract – Protect yourself and the work
First things first, we need to get a contract signed. It states the amount of pay, writing credits, and contribution both of you will have on the agreement. This is a must. Never take a handshake. The best of friendships have been lost because of money or credit being mishandled with a project. You can download a standard contract from the WGA here.
2. Define the relationship – Set the boundaries and expectations
Many screenwriters blindly jump into co-writing. Someone gets a great idea and brings in a co-writer without the relationship being defined. Two or three drafts later, they are at each others throats and the project falls apart. Being passionate about a project is fantastic, but be smart about it. Define the working relationship between the two of you by what you expect the other writer to contribute. Is one the engine and the other a wheel? Is this a 50/50 split? Have that conversation. Yes, it will be awkward and uncomfortable, but ultimately necessary. This will help to reduce any friction between the two of you when things get stressful. And they will get stressful.
3. Compatibility – Matters more than you realize
How well you work together defines how easily the process will go. Find someone that can bring skills and talents to the table that you particularly lack or are weak in. This works two-fold. First, they will obviously balance out the script. Second, you will be able to learn from them as you work together and improve your own skills as a writer. Constantly pushing ourselves to become better is something all of us should be doing. When I find a writer that I want to collaborate with, I offer to exchange scripts and notes with them. We read each other’s work and give feedback. I tell them to be honest and not hold back. See, you can learn a lot about a person based on how they give notes, but more importantly how they receive notes. It’s a window into their soul. Are they bitter, resistant, argumentative, thankful, humble, or gracious. This will tell you if you can work with them or not.
4. Trust & Respect – A must
Without trust and respect there is no partnership. They are the foundation of a solid collaboration. After we give each other notes and have decided we are compatible, I go one step further. I get to know them through several “creative” meetings on story development. Once we feel comfortable with each other, then I know that trust is building and it’s time to move forward with the project. You might ask, “How do you know when trust is building?” Simple, are they comfortable sharing things about themselves with you? Do you look forward to seeing or talking with them? And most importantly do they make you laugh? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are starting to build trust.
We don’t just want to respect our co-writer’s skill as a writer. That’s a given. You wouldn’t be collaborating with them if you didn’t respect what they can do. It’s about respecting their creative vision and keeping their “voice” in the script. This is something to really keep in mind during the rewrite. Especially, when it comes down to cleaning up the script and making it seem like one “person” wrote it. How do you make two separate writers come off as one? You do a draft together where you both comb through the script side by side and make it as clean and lean as possible. Eventually if you work with this person enough, you two will begin writing in a way that is almost indecipherable from one another. It will be as if one person is writing. That is when you hit that beautiful moment of sympatico.
5. Set the ego aside – The work is what matters
The work is what matters most. Not you or your ideas. The script. You can’t become too attached to an idea. This unfairly limits the contributions of your co-writer. You need to remain open. If you spend most of your sessions arguing with your writing partner about the story, then I’ve got news for you…you’re the problem. You need to step back emotionally from the work. Listen to what they have to say. It’s okay to disagree with them, but make sure you have a compelling reason why it has to go your way. Usually the best solution is something neither of you have thought of yet. However, sometimes you hit an impasse. That’s when it’s a good idea to have a “gimmie this one” rule. This is when you have a moment in the script that you feel very strongly about, and you must have it in. Your co-writer must respect the “gimmie this one” rule and you have to respect when they use it as well. Of course, these should be used sparingly on a script – once or twice maximum per writer.
6. Figure out your style – Make it efficient
There are a myriad of ways to co-write a script. Some will pass scripts back and forth. Others will break up which scenes, acts, or even characters each writer will exclusively write. There have even been teams where one co-writer will dictate as the other types. Always do your outline and beat sheet together as a team. No exceptions! I prefer to write the entire script side by side with my co-writers. I feel it’s the best way. You have each other, right there and can constantly try out what works and what doesn’t in the moment. When I co-wrote my multi-award winning zomedy “Hipster Z” 😊, my co-writer and I used WriterDuet. It allowed us to write in real time and bounce scenes and comedy beats off one another. We knew what material was good, when we could crack each other up into fits of non-stop laughter. Then we would write the scenes in real time with WriterDuet, which was amazing. No other software even comes close to offering that. Eventually, one of us would plod forward in the script while the other would fall back to cleanup dialogue, fix formatting, and make sure the script was perfect. You can imagine how fast we banged out this screenplay!
There you have it, the fundamentals of collaboration amongst screenwriters. It has it’s challenges of course, with its own unique ups and downs. We are writers after all, we eat ups and downs for breakfast. Working with another writer can help you learn how to address your own weakness as a storyteller. Which forces us to grow and become even better ourselves. Eventually, you will get into that writing groove with your co-writer, where you play off one another and experience a very special feeling of bliss that comes with collaboration. Then you’ll know what an orange tastes like.
Till next time,
Geoffrey D. Calhoun is the founder of wefixyourscript.com where they provide script notes and feedback with a personal touch. Visit their website for a free 15-minute consultation.