It’s a Friday and I’m going to meet up with another writer at his office like I do almost every Friday, mainly because I want to steal all of the butterscotch from the reception candy bowl (I’m not twelve, I promise you). I’m carrying a container of the very real, very ridiculous pizza flavored nuts brand Dee’s Nuts — I kid you not — that is integral to our plot. Okay, maybe not integral but like there is a sophisticated, layered inside joke throughout the script about this container of nuts and our main character just happens to be nicknamed Dee (like I said, I’m not twelve.)
We’re working on a pilot that, if you’ve had drinks with me in the past three months, you’ve probably heard me pitch to you in the same breathless tone of voice that I get when I describe why I love Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. (But don’t talk to me about any of the sequels. Just don’t.)
I’ve written some of my favorite projects with others: Jen Enfield-Kane and I wrote and were co-showrunners on CON at USC. Noah Suarez-Sikes and I have had a litany of never-produced yet incredibly lovely writing projects that we’ve worked on together (and hopefully will have another soon!) I’m working with Sandy Valles (an actress known for her role in CON oh and also QUEEN OF THE SOUTH) on a pitch based on an awesome idea her and her brother came up with.
I love television writing in part because of how collaborative it is: you get to play make-believe with other talented creatives. Together, you make something cool that people will hopefully turn into GIFs and needlessly complex Fanfiction for years to come.
However, this doesn’t mean that the writing process is a dream. Writing with a partner or in a television room means there are a lot of different perspectives and approaches to story — which can be great at certain times and a roadblocks at others!
So if you’re starting in a television writers’ room or are about to embark on writing a script with a writing partner, here are some things you should keep in mind so that you get along with other creatives and homicide stays on the page:
Spend More Time on Big-Picture Tone and Taste Discussions for Your Script
Figure out where the gaps in your taste are. In an ideal world, you and your writing partner love the same movies and geek out over the same TV series, but at some point your writing partner is probably going to reveal some horrible truth about their taste (i.e. that they’ve un-ironically watched any amount of reality television) and you may need to have an intervention about the excessive Kardashian references that keep cropping up in your script.
More importantly, verbalizing tonal references and clarifying the overall vision for your script will prevent dialogs like, “oh you saw this script more like MINDHUNTER than NCIS? I wish you would have told me before I had them go into a forensics lab and zoom in and sharpen on evidence with Photoshop a bunch of times to solve the case instead of just leaving the episode confusingly open-ended with seemingly abandoned story threads!”
(Disclaimer: there are parts of MINDHUNTER I enjoyed.*)
So. TALK to your writing partner about the sweeping, big picture, talking over characters and plotlines and concepts in detail before you even commit a word to the page.
*Like the credits
Capitalize on Collective Strengths and Weaknesses
strengths: can write checklists. weaknesses: doesn’t understand you’re supposed to check only one.
This is especially true with a writers’ room or collaboration with multiple writers: we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and if we’re smart, we’ll admit both and lean on our fellow creatives. (By the way: I think it would be cool if all writers’ rooms took the Strengths Finder Assessment)
For example, I’m a stone cold killer when it comes to crafting an epic outline or a twist-filled story. I can turn any pile of sludge into a compelling story, especially if that sludge has a rich backstory. I also pride myself in snappy dialog, meaningful act-outs, and doing ridiculous amounts of research before any project. However, I always appreciate working with writing partners who can help me build more complexity into my characters and who challenge my character decisions. Working with writers who can drill down into human nature and reflect that on the page in a poetic way is still a skill I’m trying to hone, and I love working with writers who do it well.
So, move past ego and talk to your writing partner or writers’ room about collective strengths and weaknesses so that together, we can create a kickass story.
Compromise: Everyone Gets Their Day in Court
When you’re writing with a writing partner, you gotta identify your ride-or-die elements of the story, characters, and dialog. The aspects of the story that get you excited about it, that you’re basically married to. Your partner should do the same.
When something you love hits the cutting board, it’s easy to respond in an emotional way — I’ve spent weeks on this scene, this line is my favorite, etc. — but take a step back. If your partner is suggesting to kill one of your babies, it may be for a good reason. If there’s an argument for cutting or changing something — it bogs down the tone, it’s overly confusing, it doesn’t matter to the story — then it should go. If you can justify its reason to stay, it should stay.
Both you and your writing partner should get your day in court. What are you going to fight for? What do you care about in the script?
Know that your passion for what’s on the page is important: both of your voices are what make it great. However, this is where we’ve got to set aside our egos again, and really ask ourselves: do I want to keep this just because I wrote it/I like it, or because it actually serves the story? Am I just trying to win this battle?
Good writing teams should challenge each other over every aspect in the script to make it great. Still, compromise should always be in reach, and you may even find a third, better alternative that neither of you would have thought of without such a lengthy discussion.
The Mechanics of Writing a Script with Your Writing Partner
In terms of the actual process, I like to use Google Docs with my writing partners to formulate a big-picture set of story documents. That way, we both can see the direction we want to go, and have all the details written down. We’ll drill all the way down to the scene outline, trying to agree on as much detail as possible. That way, when we write our scenes, we both know what to expect and have agreed upon a general story for the whole thing.
We use WriterDuet to write the actual script (a Google-Docs-like cloud program) and meet once or twice a week to go over pages, thoughts, ideas, research, and the like.
Then, we just set objectives and deadlines for ourselves on a week-to-week basis until we’ve written a script we’re proud of.
That’s all for today! Check out my Popular Posts page for more screenwriting and writing tips.