Top Ten Reasons to
Write with a Partner
by Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens
Want to double your chance for success in this business? If so, we strongly suggest you write with a partner. Yes, you have to find the right person, and when you start selling your scripts, you'll split the money, but we, and the successful script partners we've talked to, agree that the advantages of sharing the writing far outweigh the disadvantages of sharing the bottom line. It would take a book (and we wrote it!) to explore all the reasons to write with a partner, so we've assembled the consensus Top Ten, as follows:
10. It's a dog-eat-dog business – and vice versa – but when you write with a partner, there's always one person in town looking out for your interests. As you well know, the misery curve for screenwriters is legendary. Conventional wisdom says it takes five to ten years to learn the craft of screenwriting, and five to ten screenplays before you finally sell one. There are exceptions, of course, keeping hope alive that perhaps, just perhaps, writing screenplays is easy.
And getting a screenplay produced is even harder. Screenplays are like sperm – there's a one-in-a-million chance they'll get made. Nicole Yorkin & Dawn Prestwich (Judging Amy; The Education of Max Bickford) spent their first four years writing scripts that didn't sell. The Farrelly brothers (There's Something About Mary; Stuck on You) spent nine years hawking their screenplays before they made their first film. So we all have to find ways to keep discouragement from overcoming determination.
"Sometimes we both get down at the same time," says Janet Scott Batchler, who writes with her husband, Lee (Batman Forever). "It just works that way. Sometimes we sort of pull each other through… Nobody hits a thousand. We just have to keep reminding each other of that."
It may be a cold world out there for screenwriters, but one of the best ways to stay warm is collaboration.
9. Writing is lonely. It doesn't have to be (and it isn't if you write with a partner). Husband and wife Andrew Schneider & Diane Frolov (Northern Exposure) both had successful solo careers, but after more than a decade of writing together, they wouldn't consider writing alone. "Now it would be almost inconceivable for me to be a solo writer," Schneider tells Written By. "It seems like such a lonely, hopeless position to be in."
Matt Manfredi & Phil Hay (crazy/beautiful) agree. "I can't think of a screenplay that I would want to write by myself," Hay tells us. "It would be very lonely and upsetting."
We've written screenplays alone, and we've written screenplays together, and we're not going back. But for our money – and experience – Jim Taylor, who wrote Citizen Rut and About Schmidt with Alexander Payne, says it best. "Writing with Alexander at my side is much more pleasurable than working on my own," he tells us. Or, as he tells Scenario, "Just the writing process itself, of writing on my own, is very unpleasant and unproductive, and it's just no fun."
8. Two imaginations really are better than one. In Which Lie Did I Tell? William Goldman grouses about the way the Farrelly brothers and the Coen brothers collaborate on their screenplays. They write too quickly. They break the rules. They write without knowing – or outlining – their story. They deliberately get themselves into a corner with their stories, then take a few days or a week or even a month off until they find a way out. Goldman insists there's madness in their method, but he grudgingly admits that for them it works.
"Okay," Goldman says, "my theory as to why it works for them is simplicity itself: numbers…because there are two of them. I can't do it that way.
Your story gets stuck in the corner. You think, "No escape." But if you write with a partner, you help each other figure it out – and find your way out of the "dark place."
7. Collaboration leads to better brainstorming. We're all told to be bold (there's magic in it), but being bold while brainstorming is easier when you write with a partner. Why? Instant feedback. When you write alone, you're your own worst critic. You question your work and judgment. But a co-writer can see the potential in ideas you might otherwise shoot down. This feedback energizes and encourages experimentation. Defeats defeatism. Promotes enthusiasm.
This contagion of enthusiasm (derived from the Latin en theos, "with God," in case you doubted it was divine) means more excitement about the screenplay you're writing. And, as you bounce ideas back and forth ("creative ping-pong," we call it), the excitement increases. It's working – no, playing – together that makes breakthroughs happen.
But all the enthusiasm in the world is no substitute for actually doing the writing. Developing productive work habits. And having a partner helps here, too. A writing workout partner…
6. A writing workout partner helps you stay focused and productive.
"You have to show up because the other guy's showing up," says Robert Ramsey, who collaborates with Matthew Stone (Big Trouble; Intolerable Cruelty). "Matt's going to the office, I gotta get there. Otherwise, I would probably be the least productive person on earth."
Jim Taylor agrees. "Having an appointed time to show up for work and someone whom you are accountable to on a daily basis makes each workday more productive," he says. "When one of us gets tired or discouraged, the other one can take over and keep things going. Plus, Alexander is a great cook."
Partners also bring different work habits to the collaboration, and they often improve over time. When we started writing our first screenplay, we tried to write once a week (Claudia's idea), but this wasn't frequent enough to create a productive momentum. Things picked up when we started to write every day (Matt's better idea).
Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson remain virtual opposites when it comes to work habits – Helgeland needs to know he has two months to write without interruption; Hanson works "in whatever way works" – but working together on L.A. Confidential pulled them through the tough patches, they tell Written By. As Helgeland so beautifully puts it, "When there was no wind, we rowed."
5. Complementing (and complimenting) each other leads to stronger scripts. Talk to any successful screenwriting team, and they can tell you, chapter and verse, what they have in common. There's no doubt – these similar sensibilities are crucial for you and your partner. But your differences – the creative yin-yang – are just as important. It is this combination, this complementarity that gives each collaboration its unique richness and range of experience, knowledge, and talent to tap.
In Written By, Jack Herrguth describes how he and Seanne Kemp Kovach (Sister, Sister) complement one another. "The fact that I'm a man and she's a woman, I'm white and she's African American brings different points of view to our partnership that enriches it."
Like Herrguth & Kovach, we're different genders. But male/female is only the beginning of our differences: urban/rural, single/married, no children/children, pessimist/optimist, good dancer/bad dancer, pop culture/literature, actor/playwright, neurotic/Zen (Matt's suggestion).
We complement each other, too, with individual strengths as screenwriters: visual/verbal, character detail/character arc, scene/structure, dialog/description, shtick/depth, first draft/revision. This doesn't mean we don't share the work, but we often defer to each other's expertise. It's a nice safety net. When we hit a snag, we can turn to the expert and say, as Goldman so delicately put it, "Fix the f[***]er."
4. Writing with a partner improves mental health (and it's cheaper than antidepressants). It's no wonder we've all got therapists and gurus on speed dial. Anxiety is so rampant in writers (especially women, but men suffer, too – just ask Matt) that a recent conference sponsored by the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research was devoted to finding ways to assuage it. One of the strategies that the conference predicted would be most successful was an effective creativity support group.
Writing with a partner is having your own creativity support group. As Aaron Ruben (Caesar's Hour) tells us, "It takes the terror out of being in the room with that sheet of paper and typewriter and not one word is there."
That terror is all too common. "Every time, my first day of writing I think, I can't do this," confides Andrew Reich, who co-writes and co-executive produces Friends with Ted Cohen. "I'm a fake. I'm gonna get found out this time that I really suck. One of the things I've learned in collaboration is to trust Ted when he says, ‘This is good enough.' I trust that."
Anxiety may attach to any creative project, but writing with a partner, we've found, is the best antidote. When we work together, we keep each other from sliding into self-doubt, the slough of despond, by cracking each other up. In fact, for us, laughter is the heart of the art of maintaining mental health when we work together. Because, like brainstorming, laughter is hard to do on your own. It's a social act that connects us to others. And satisfying the human need for connection is one of the reasons laughter increases mental – and physical – health.
"After you laugh, you go into a relaxed state," explains John Morreall, president of Humor Works Seminars in Tampa, Florida. "Your blood pressure and heart rate drop below normal, so you feel profoundly relaxed. Laughter also indirectly stimulates endorphins, the brain's natural painkillers." More to the point for screenwriters, laughter makes us more creative. "Humor loosens up the mental gears. It encourages out-of-the-ordinary ways of looking at things." WD40 for the creative wheels. But what happens when those wheels screech to a halt? Which brings us to…
3. A partner can help you conquer writer's block. Without co-writer Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio (Shrek; Pirates of the Caribbean) claims to have "a permanent case of writer's block," as he says on their Web site, Wordplayer.com. His recommendation? "Get a writing partner, so there's somebody other than yourself you don't want to let down."
"You just call up the other person or go talk to the other person, and you deal with the problem," says Nick Kazan (Matilda, with Robin Swicord). "And the problem usually goes away. Something that would keep you stuck and perhaps deeply depressed for a week or two is going to evaporate in a matter of minutes. So it's a great solace."
2. Collaborating makes you a better writer (and maybe a better person).
Most teams tell us that working together has made them better people. Less ego-involved and controlling. More open and trusting. The long-term effect of writing with someone else, we and others have found, is far more profound than expected. It's humanizing. We've learned to accept and welcome our differences and most of our idiosyncrasies.
"I think it makes us very tolerant people," Dawn Prestwich says. "It makes us understand the human condition a little bit better because we have such an intimate view of it." And since the best scripts are about the human condition, what better way to learn to write better scripts?
As we said, the rewards of collaboration often transcend success. Many script partners found success on their own, but it wasn't until they wrote with each other that they found real fulfillment.
"What we do together has been not just professionally but personally very nourishing," Lowell Ganz says about his long, luminous career with Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers; Parenthood), "to have done it with, and to still be doing it, together."
And the Number One Reason to Write with a Partner (drumroll, please…) is best articulated by Ted Elliott of Elliott & Rossio, one of the most successful teams writing today. "As you struggle as writers to perfect your craft," he says, "schlepping from studio to studio trying to make that elusive sale or capture that dream assignment, as you wend your way over the freeways that link Hollywood to Burbank, and Beverly Hills to Century City, there is a final, overwhelming way in which a writing partner can be beneficial. Two words:
1. Carpool Lane.
More About the Authors:
Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens are the co-authors of "Script Partners," the marriage manual for collaborators. Claudia is also the author of "Stifled Laughter," nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the inaugural P.E.N./Newman's Own First Amendment Award, and the popular film school text, "Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect." Other awards include the American National Theater and Academy West Award and the Warner Brothers Scriptwriting Award. Matt is a writer/producer who has sold both fiction and documentary projects. He writes about film for E! Online and contributes to other new media outlets. As a director, his short films have screened at national and international festivals and won numerous awards, including the Student Emmy for best comedy. Two of their co-written scripts were finalists for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens are the co-authors of "Script Partners," the marriage manual for collaborators, available at the Writers Store. More info about our authors can be found at the end of their article. Claudia is the author of another favorite book: Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect