October 31, 2018

Eight ways to co-write a screenplay

You want a writing partner you say?  Well, how are you gonna write together?

In my experience, most people who ask for a writing partner never deliver.  They may have won some obscure contest in the past, and now they think that just because they have a nice idea, the world owes them a screenplay.  Na uh.

But, I hope you’re the exception.  Maybe the problem isn’t that you think the world owes you a screenplay, maybe you just failed to set the ground rules.

I’m not looking for a writing partner right now.  Instead, I’ll look at methods I’ve tried and that others have described.  Yes, I did that a year ago, with three ways to work with a writing partner. But, that was a year ago.

So, what changed?  I’ve got better words to describe the writing methods, and I’ve decided to add my own experience.

(I) The French method.

I call this the French method because this is the way a lot of French films are written.  One writer does the story, structure and all that, and another is credited with dialogue.  So, you might give someone a seventy page treatment, and be the writer of the scenario.  Then, your writing partner excels at dialogue, and turns your treatment into a script.

This almost seems like adaptation, but don’t be fooled.  The first partner doesn’t write a whole novel (nor do they simply provide a premise or synopsis).  This is the entire story of the script, paced for a feature, and enough to make a film on if the actors improvise.  Another term for this is the Scenario/dialogue split.

(2) Gilbert and Sullivan Method.

This is like the French method, but for musicals.  Now, here’s the good news.  If you’re pitching a musical to a studio, you probably won’t be asked to write the music.  The studio will take care of that.

If you’re pitching a musical to private investors, then it might help if you have not only lyrics, but music available.  Like Gilbert and Sullivan, one of you writes the music, the other writes the lyrics.  Who does the story?  Work that out amongst yourselves.  Gilbert was the dramatist and librettist, Sullivan the composer.

Well, dramatist implies that Gilbert shaped the story as well. Some librettists might merely add words to existing music, or take on a much smaller role.

Now, normally, the score isn’t considered part of a screenplay.  In films from “Wizard of Oz” to “Lion King”, the score was written without the knowledge of the screenwriters.  Many operas were written by composers who based in on plays, sure, but the original playwright may have been long dead before they put the words on paper.

So, why would you entertain this?  If you’re a writer-producer of an independent film, I guess.

(3) The tag-team method

This method Eszterhas claims was “the most fun I’ve ever had writing a screenplay.”  He met his writing partner when watching their sons play little league baseball.  First he wrote a draft.  Then, his partner wrote another draft, and passed it back.  Finally, it comes back to the first writer.  Back and forth, like a tag team, until the script is ready.

(4) The Writer-refiner or On Commission

Often, a writer will be hired by a producer or a director to put their idea on paper.  The screenwriter will get full pay for this, in some ways it’s more difficult than writing your own story.  Maybe the director will be on salary too.

An example of this kind of (well-paid) collaboration is shown above.  Ghostwriters can also work this way.

(5) The Puzzle Approach

At the end of first year, the teachers had lost my paper on Taxi Driver, I didn’t work well with a group that only wanted to do horror, and so I had to resit some classes.  It was summer, and I was working with other students who failed and had to resit.  We were the kind of film students who hated film school, and it seemed that this group would have a terrible time working together, so I had an idea.  Why don’t we make a composite film, where we can all supply our own ideas as part of a whole?

It had been done before, with New York Stories, Four Rooms and others.  Each director/writer comes up with a mini-story that is loosely attached to the main film.

Well, this was a short, not a feature.  Merely one class, a few measly credits (or was it even one credit?)  Something like introduction to holding a video camera.  So, my idea was a political party broadcast for a fictional political party called the Free Radical party.  (Later, I found out that the Lib Dems used free radical in their newsletter.  Ha ha, we spoofed you on accident!)

Four failures wrote our bits independently, spoofing different parts of the political spectrum.  One offered free beer.  One wanted to tear up the roads, and replace them with dirt roads. (the part I directed.)  The part I acted in, well, that was some guy who wanted to set drug addicts on fire.  I think I still have the trench coat.

I’ve tried this again, with a film that was never produced called “Uninvited Guests.”  Someone wrote an excellent part for Ffion.  Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong with that film went wrong.  The film never got made, and it probably never will.

Basically, in the puzzle approach, different writers write different parts of the script.  It’s usually used by successful writer-directors who want to work together, and often loses money.

I call it the puzzle approach because, if you do manage to film it, you’ll have an editor puzzled about how to fit all the pieces together.

(6) The outlined segments

This is similar to the puzzled approach, but is much more widely used, especially in serials on television.

For The Outlined Segments, you have an outline to begin with, perhaps what’s called a “series bible”, and different writers may tackle different parts of the story.  In the puzzle approach, it’s merely a premise, so you don’t really know the whole story and you have to piece it afterwards.  The Outline helps clarify confusion ahead of time.

A variation of the Outlined Segments approach was used by the writers of The Pacifier and Night of the Museum.  They discussed the outline together, and then went away and wrote different segments.  Then, they tag teamed those segments, reviewing what the other writing partner did.

(7) The relay method

This is probably the most used method on big budget films.  It’s like the tag team method, except it seldom ever comes back to the original writer.  One writer writes a draft, then it goes to the next.  Multiple drafts may be done.  Usually, each writer will be commissioned for each draft.

(8) Group writing

This is the least effective, in my opinion, but is becoming increasingly popular among writers’ groups as an excuse to underpay the writer.

Of course, most writing is group writing, as seen in the writer-refiner method.  With group writing, you usually have a head writer, who puts it all together.  Writing a good script can take a professional all year (Shakespeare wrote two plays a year on average.  Sure, he also acted, but he’s also Shakespeare.)  One group writer turned feature screenwriting guru, John Truby, estimates that writing a full length script takes three months of full time work, and even compares it to a prison sentence.

With group writing, you sit around a circle, bounce around ideas, and then put them down.  Normally, everyone involved will be on an annual salary.  In American cable television, a group writer is paid about 80,000 dollars per year.

I tried group writing for parts of Paintballer IV, a short film I co-wrote co-filmed and acting in during the first year of film school.  I’ve lost the footage.

Looking back at the group-written scenes, they don’t feel like my writing.  I’ve also lost touch with my group, and don’t really remember who wrote which lines of the group scenes.  (Well, I remember what Alan wrote.  Are you reading this Alan?  Some other voices are hard to place.)

So, I’ve separated the scenes and outlines that I’m sure I wrote alone.  If the film ever gets made properly, sorry guys, unless find a way to contact you again, your contributions will be lost.


Okay, now, I went from three to eight.  How many of these have I tried?  I guess four, but none recently.

The Puzzle Approach was the most fun for me personally, but the resulting film seemed to contradict itself.  Oh well.

Even scarier than the Puzzle approach is doing all the work yourself, or most of it, with someone else taking the credit.  But, without an agreed upon method, how do you measure how much work each partner has done?

Do you have any other co-writing methods?  Or, do you use different names for the above methods?  If so, let me know.

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