Two writers better than one?
May 21, 2010 1:34 PM   Subscribe

In a feature film screenplay, how do writing collaborations work?

For example: Is it ever the case where the plot points, character arcs and story beats are created by one writer but the dialogue written by someone else? Is there often a distinction between writing dialogue and writing "the story" so to speak?
posted by rocco to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Different writing teams work different ways. Certainly the way you suggest is one way to do it.
posted by kindall at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2010

My co-writing experience is more with comic scripts than with film screenplays, but the two formats are similar enough that my experience seemed worth mentioning.

With the two books I co-wrote last year, the other writer had previously been my editor on another project, and in some ways that relationship continued. Very generally speaking, the process went like this:

- We talked on the phone about our broad ideas for the book, what the major beats and character arcs would be and what tone we were going for.

- We then took turns writing a detailed pitch/summary -- passing it back and forth, discussing various points and making revisions until we were both happy with it.

- Once the pitch was accepted, I went in and expanded some of the sparser sections of the outline, making further revisions as I went based on conversations we'd had and some early feedback from others. We were then left with an outline that contained all the major beats of the story.

- My co-writer, who's much better at hitting pagecount targets than I am due to his extensive editorial experience, then took the outline and broke it down into the 100 pages (and often the individual panels on those pages) we had for our comic. In places where he had particular feelings or ideas about the dialog or other details, added that in as well -- some pages were basically a first draft, others were only a hundred words or so of broad description. In a few cases, he added beats/scenes not in the original outline that he thought would make the script more effective.

- I then went through and expanded and/or revised what he'd written, sometimes making drastic changes as I shuffled things around but often just fleshing out the skeleton he'd constructed. This included writing much of the final dialog and much more detailed descriptions of the locations, character actions and emotions.

- My co-writer then went over what I'd done, talked to me about things he didn't like/didn't think were working and either made changes himself or sent me off to do my own revisions. This back-and-forth continued until we were happy with the script.

- Once we started getting notes back from our editors (and the film studio, as this was a work-for-hire tied to a movie) we took turns applying them, depending on our availability and whose skills were better suited to the revisions.

- Then we swore we'd never write two graphic novels in three months ever again.

This is just my experience, of course, and I've simplified things a little for the sake of relative brevity. Collaborative processes differ wildly from person-to-person and from project-to-project. But this is one way, at least, of how two people can get a script finished.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:51 PM on May 21, 2010

I have an MFA in screenwriting, so I'm arguably qualified to comment on this.

One important distinction worth making here is between how this works in the actual creative process, and how it works in terms of credit. And then, within the question of process, there is the distinction between how it works between two writers who are partners, and how it works between two writers who didn't intend to collaborate, but ended up working on the same project at different times.

In terms of the process, I've seen and heard of it working in all sorts of ways. I'll let someone else cover that.

In terms of credit a distinction is made:

"A & B" means that A and B wrote it together.

"A and B" means that A and B both wrote it, but not together. Probably, A wrote a draft, got fired, and then B wrote a draft, but B left in a lot of A's stuff.

"A&B and C&D" means that A&B wrote it together, and then got fired, and then C&D rewrote it together (or something similar).

"Story by A, Screenplay by B" could mean that A wrote a draft, and then B re-wrote it but kept the basic structure and characters; or that A wrote a treatment, and then B wrote it; or that A was a producer and described the basic story in a memo, and then B wrote it, or that there was a mess of drafts, and the WGA assembled a committee to read them all and make a decision about who should get credit for what.
posted by bingo at 2:09 PM on May 21, 2010

I don't know if this applies in features, as well, but I've seen in television writing, there can be a "story by" credit as well as a "teleplay by" credit for the same episode.
posted by andrewraff at 4:47 PM on May 22, 2010

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