Collaboration on Screenplays: How We Make it Work

Collaboration on a screenplay.  Don’t shy away from it.

Collaboration may be something that some writers are slow to recognize. They disregard the little suggestions made by a spouse or friend. But I believe there are very few scripts that have been written completely solo, even when you end up with full writer credit. I am considered the sole writer on a good number of works, but I can’t in all honesty give myself complete credit for the end results.

I have a two-step methodology that I like to go through when writing a script for a feature film project. Each step is intensive and it looks something like this:

Step 1: Get Feedback From Family and Friends

While I am writing I will get feedback from friends and family members who I trust will be honest. I do this before I am finished to save me the hassle of having to do as many overhauls after I am done with a rough draft. These people are not writers. They represent the people who will hopefully, watch the story someday. The viewers who will determine if they would watch it again. Then, I consider what they said and keep writing and rewriting. Once I feel I have a fairly solid script, I dig into my wallet and send it off to my script doctor. Why do this if all of my test marketers are giving me the thumbs up? Because “okay” isn’t good enough.

Step 2: Get the Script Analyzed By a Professional.

Talking scary. This is my moment of truth. All of the screenwriting books, webinars and blogs about fashioning great scripts, although helpful, don’t even come close to what is learned by having a professional analyze your script.  This is my greatest form of education as a writer. I’ll never forget the first time I sent a screenplay to my script doctor. I was terrified of what he would say. What if he told me it sucked. Or to not quit my day job. This ‘waiting’ was not sweet sorrow… it was nerve-wracking sorrow. When he finally got back to me and told me how much he sincerely enjoyed reading my script I was so relieved. Then, I started reading through his observations and suggestions. All 30+ pages of them. But I wasn’t discouraged, I was ignited with fresh ideas. I ended up doing a major re-write followed by multiple revisions. The end result was a script that made the semi-finals of an international competition. There is no telling how validating it is to be one of the top thirty screenplays out of 6,000. When I contacted my script doctor to tell him the news he wasn’t surprised. The original was a really good story, but it would have never achieved what the new script achieved. It took being open to accept valid criticism, and get back to writing to end up with a great screenplay.

2008 Notes on a screenplay from my script doctor.
Notes on a screenplay from my script doctor. (April 2008)
Collaboration in Action

A different kind of collaboration took place for our web-series, When Fact Met Fiction. When Stefan Liner and I greenlighted the project my writing approach changed significantly. We didn’t have the time to go through the above processes in as much depth. However, what we ended up doing worked well for us, again, because of collaboration. It is said there is safety in numbers or in a multitude of counselors, but too many hands in the pot can also make for a really dirty pot. Choosing to co-write with other writers can be tricky. Personalities and styles can clash. We had three important dynamics working in our favor.

Robin and Stefan discuss script changes.
Robin and Stefan discuss script changes.
  1. The project was more important than our egos. Collaborating requires give and take.  Nobody likes to hear, “I don’t think that works”, but you have to be able to hear stuff like that and give a very good reason for defending it if you are determined to keep something that your co-writers don’t like. Ultimately, you have to go back and ask, “What serves the story?”
  2. We had trust and respect for each other. If you don’t respect your co-writers abilities you have no business trying to work together. You also have to trust that any disagreement on content is not an attack on you. And your input needs to come from a sincere desire to wind-up with a great story.
  3. We formulated a workflow that worked for both of us. Because we  were working on a small budget and a limited amount of time multitasking was unavoidable. We were forced to relegate our writing in a way that didn’t impede productivity in other areas of production.
Our process of collaboration ended up looking something like this:
  • We outlined the overall story for the entire season including over-arching storylines. And we finalized what characters would best tell the story while maintaining uniqueness and age diversity. We knew we wanted a combination of ordinary and quirky.  Sweet and sassy. Maintaining a consistent way of dialoguing for each individual character was a challenge. Having more than one set of eyes on the project helped us keep that in check. Our most asked question involved something like, ” How would so and so say that?”
  • We divided our overall story into eight beats so each episode could build on the previous plot point and propel the story toward the next. But we were very conscious that our episodes were short and we definitely had a desired ending destination for the first season. In the end our greatest challenge was pacing.  How to show relationships growing and determining how much time was passing throughout the season.
  • I wrote the initial scripts then Stefan and I would go back over it together and make adjustments. The story itself was determined together, but the initial construction of the screenplays was my job. After we had re-written the scripts a few times, we brought in Jennifer Miller. There were a few we weren’t completely satisfied with.  I love researching specific ways to create personality, whether in a character, location, or plotline. I remember calling Jennifer up for ideas concerning one of the character’s phraseology. It was so helpful to have her input.
  • From the beginning we had determined that we wanted to give our actors some freedom in developing their characters. We knew that the pace in which we crafted the scripts would inevitably leave us with some inconsistencies. We were hoping to flesh these out at the table read. In the end our talent was amazing as collaborators in their own right. We were changing dialogue on the spot as we discussed with them how to approach some of the plot points and they never missed a beat. There were times we were sticklers on staying with the script, but if their impulses strengthened the story we ran with it. Everything about the overall season was better because we had a collaborative atmosphere with the talent.
    Robin, Stefan and team discuss rewrites for episode 8.
    Robin, Stefan and team discuss rewrites for episode 8.

Collaboration may not be effective for people who like to be in total control. I’ve known writers who will ask me to look over their script and when I suggest that they first get a professional to analyze it they come up with excuses why they don’t need to. I know how scary it can be to put your blood sweat and tears out there. I know we have this great fear that someone is going to say, “Don’t quit your day job.” I know how it feels to sit down with a team and have to compromise. To give up something that you really liked, but in the end you have to care enough more about the overall story.

For us, collaboration works because we learn and grow from each other. Because it makes us  better writers the next time around. Now that is something to get excited about.

Thanks for reading.