Collaborative Screenwriting: What You Should Know

Collaboration can be a useful way of completing a screenplay in a fraction of the time that you would alone, or to write a brilliant film script that neither screenwriter could have written individually.

There are a number of ways of collaborating. One is not better than the other. Work out what works for you and your screenwriting partner to achieve the best possible screenplay. That’s your goal.

However there are a number of principles that must be adhered to so that you don’t end up with horror film when you set out to write a romantic comedy.

Generally, two or more writers start working together to define the story, genre, character and plot. Then they’ll collectively write a comprehensive script outline (or beat sheet). Writers usually digress at this point to write their designated scenes and finally return for the final script polish. Sounds easy, huh?

A typical (whatever that means) collaboration begins with a BRAINSTORMING session. It is essential that all writers are working on the same story and are fully aware of all the elements, theme, conflict and character arc.

This could mean skyping, IMing, iChatting, emailing or telephoning each other. As long as all parties are communicating. You may or may not need to physically be in the same room.

Record all your ideas. Don’t trash anything, ever. You may use butchers’ paper, index cards or notebooks to scatter gun ideas, scenes, dialogue and plot. Throw it all there into a huge scratch file. Think of it as a giant pantry. It’s full of goodies, but you don’t use all of it. Still, you need to know it’s there and be able to peek inside for additional script ingredients. I’ve had instances where scenes I wrote for one script ended up in another.

After that, the collaborators should jointly define the main turning points in the story and the key scenes (and set pieces). This will hone your story and help iron out any anomalies, logic and plot holes.

Following that, the writers create a story outline or a plot sequence outline of their script. Division of labour must be decided at this point. Each writer may write alternating sequences, or each writer may be allocated an act, or the script may be divided in half. I wouldn’t recommend the latter. Try writing the second half of a script when you don’t know what the first half looks like. Whatever you decide, ensure you read and rewrite each others’ work to ensure consistency in your movie script.

Much like the elves’ toy workshop, writers can allocate core screenwriting tasks based on individual strengths. One writer may type faster, write punchier jokes, write better action sequences, be more economical with dialogue or scene description, or whatever the case may be.

During the final script polish, all parties must come together and edit every line of screen direction and dialogue. At this point the distinction between who wrote what becomes blurry. You really are working as a team.

For me, the collaborative process usually ends at the beat sheet stage of the story. I need to know each character’s nuances and previous scenes before I can proceed.  Writing non-consecutive or only partial scenes is like like watching a movie, periodically leaving the room and picking up where you left off after being told what you’ve missed.  For others, collaborating comes as naturally as sharing the housework.

So go forth and write…

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