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BALLS OF STEEL™: How Do Writing Partnerships Work?

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman takes you through the processes she's used with her different writing partners to help you create writing partnerships that work... without killing each other.

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and a PAGE Awards semi-finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Compliment to Jeanne's previous post:
Balls of Steel: 11 Ways to Avoid Disaster When Choosing a Writing Partner.

When you break story with that perfect writing partner, plot points pop and characters leap off the page. There’s truly nothing like it. Hot sex and a triple of Wild Turkey don’t even come close to the thrill of that moment your writing partner turns to you and says, “Your idea just gave me CHILLZZZz!”

But how do you get to that point where writing together is effortless and mutually satisfying?

I’ve had several writing partners, and in each of those collaborations, we worked in different ways, all successfully getting words on the page, but not always creatively satisfying for the parties involved.

Every person is different; therefore every partnership needs to be set up in its own unique way.

How do we both effectively work on one script?

Let’s explore some of the options, of which I am certain more exist than just what I’m listing. But let’s start with ones I’ve tried. Since I’m an outliner, each approach will assume you break story together in some fashion. After all, with two creative minds, there always needs to be some sort of roadmap. For that purpose, we’ll define the word “outline” loosely, ranging from a detailed beat sheet to a few paragraphs.

1. Outline together; write alone.

In this scenario, you break story as a team, develop the backstory, brainstorm out different solutions and plot points. Once the outline is fleshed out, then one of you sits at the laptop and pumps out the words. The second partner then acts as a “producer” in that they give notes but never touch the page. Note: This works best when you have a full treatment so the “producer” partner feels like they have some sort of input, as opposed to just blindly trusting the one who’s writing.

My take: I like this process, but only when I am the one writing. It’s not about my needing control. It’s simply because I am a writer. I love to get words down and learn my characters’ quirks as I let them dance on the page. There’s no way I could be the one who sat back and acted like “producer.” It would suck the life out of me not to write, making the partnership lackluster for my sensibilities. But if you are a writer who doesn’t like feedback, then take the producer role and give notes. Either way, you have to be open to each other’s viewpoints.

2. Outline together; write together.

Just as the first example, you break story together. Then you can either write in the same room, use an online collaboration tool on your screenwriting software, or split the scenes up and each write the scenes best suited for your skill set. Maybe you divide them by plots points or by characters. This is probably the fastest way to write a screenplay as a team.

My take: This process worked for me, but I will definitely add a caveat to that. When one of you is more open to notes than the other, what happens is the feedback junkie will always be rewriting their scenes (which is great), but the one resistant to notes will also be resistant to changing their scenes, instead sticking with what they vomited out on the first draft, and the overall script will suffer. In order for this process to work, you have to both be willing to let the other writer offer feedback and to change your words to reflect your intent as a team. You only move on to the next scene when both of you agree on the one at hand. You’re work will be better off if you slash it to pieces before the exec does… because they will! Trust me.

3. Outline together… then channel the Coen brothers.

The Coen brothers

The Coen brothers

What the hell does that mean, you ask? It’s widely known that Ethan and Joel Coen have a unique and successful writing partnership (Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, Fargo, etc.). They fascinate me, so I dug into how they work. One brother will write a scene, pass it to the next, that brother will try to raise the bar in conflict and character before passing it back to the first brother. With each pass, they always strive to outdo the other. Competitive? Maybe, but it obviously works for them… and the audience!

My take: This is the process I’m using now in my latest partnership. For me, I’ve finally found the Holy Grail of writing processes! I’m one competitive freak, and finding a partner who not only allows me to push the limits, but actually double-dog dares me to top his twisted mind, is like winning the writing jackpot! I’ve always wanted to go farther into deeper, darker places than any other partner I’ve worked with. To me, pushing the limits in storytelling, and then breaking through them into unchartered territory, is what makes for genius in art.

Which process you choose depends on the individuals. Try them out. See what feels right. Experiment. Have fun with it. It’s not rocket science, but it is important to find a way to create that feels organic for both of you.

What happens when you disagree?

Simple. You pull out dueling pistols and have at it. Survivor wins.

OK, maybe not, but there will undoubtedly be days you’d love to slice your writing partner in two and run free by yourself. So allow me to give you some advice that might actually sound more like marital advice.

Be kind. Seems simple, right? It’s not always, but it’s important to recognize when someone’s idea is blurted out, they feel a sense of ownership. Ideas are hard to squash because they’re often personal and intimate. Writing with someone is intensely intimate in nature, making kindness critical. Treat them the way you want to be treated. Period.

Be vulnerable. In order to get to the heart of any story or character, you need to be willing to rip the wounds open and hand your writing partner the saltshaker. If you stay guarded, your story will suffer. If you sense your writing partner is struggling, help them feel safe going to those dark places that will elevate your characters and story.

Be prepared to argue your case. If you disagree on something, present your case to your partner. Argue it objectively, like you’re in a court of law. If you can convince them that changing it is in the best interest of the story, then your work will benefit. But if the change is only for ego sake, it shouldn’t happen. If you can’t convince your partner, and you still feel strongly about it, then rewrite the scene the way you envision. Perhaps seeing it on paper will help your partner see the value of your proposed change. However, sometimes when you do the exercise of changing it, you’ll see your partner might have been right all along.

Get out of jail free card. Sometimes when a dispute over a scene isn’t getting resolved, the only way to solve it is one of you stating, “This one is really important to me.” The other partner should respect that and stand down. One day, you might have to pull that card yourself, but use it sparingly. My partners and I only did that once in each script, if that.

It’s called having blind faith in your partner’s gut instincts.

Now comes the hardest part of partnerships – trust.

A partnership requires complete trust. Life and death trust.

The kind of trust that exists when riding on a motorcycle together. One partner is in control, steering, leaning into the turns, while the other is on the back, holding on for dear life, placing complete trust in their partner. When the roles switch, the other partner is in the driver’s seat, revving the engine, maybe taking more risks than the first, but always mindful of their partner’s safety and comfort level.

Their fingers may be digging into the driver’s chest, but when she turns back to say, “You OK?” the partner says, “I will be. Keep going.”

And they zoom off, pushing the envelope, raising the bar. All because of trust.

Could you let them have control? Would you lean into the turns with them or would you resist? Be aware that if you choose to resist, the bike could easily crash, hurting you both.

If you lose trust, it can often be irreparable… much like a crash with no helmets.

If writing with someone is as challenging as being married, why do it?

Most people get married because they’re chasing love. Hell, chasing love is probably what has kept the human race from distinction. I believe partnering with someone to write is like chasing the love of our art.

Everything in life is better when you can experience it with someone else.

I wish I had a picture of my face when my writing partner and I are batting ideas back and forth, and I blurt out, “OH OH OH OH OH… shut the fuck up… I have an IDEA!” My Sicilian hands flail about. A gigantic smile comes across my face. My eyes go wide with excitement. Pupils dilated. If I were writing alone in the room, how much fun would that moment be? Not so much.

Besides the pure joy of breaking story with someone, there’s the practicality of having two creative minds churning out words. As long as you can stay in sync, your stories will absolutely be better for it.

Think of it as the difference between being a solo artist and being a member of a band. That’s what hit me when I was watching a documentary showing The Zac Brown Band. They recently shocked the country world by collaborating on an album with Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl.

Dave Grohl marveled, “Everyone is just so good that you sort of challenge each other to be more and more badass.”

I wonder if the Coen brothers say that to each other.

Zac Brown responded, “It’s still us, but it was pushed to another different limit. The bar was set higher.”

Band member Jimmy DeMartini added, “We’re a band that likes to try new things. We’re a band that likes to experiment. This is just the next step of where we are musically.”

There you have it. The beauty of collaboration. Every band has their own rhythm, and ever writing partnership has theirs. To get to the next step creatively, sometimes you need to bust open your boundaries and let someone else play on your pages.

If you decide to dip your toe into the possibility of creating art with another writer, it can be incredibly rewarding. But be honest about yourself. Some people should never be writing partners, just like some people should never be married. It’s not easy writing with someone, but when it works, yowza, it’s amazing! But just like marriage, it’s essential to always be mindful of the other person’s vision and dreams.

My take...

Be kind. Be respectful. If you are not happy and don’t think the partnership is making you a better writer and human, get out. If you’re happy, do anything you can to keep your partner happy too. Put your story first, but never before your respect for one another. You may wiggle, squirm and be unstable in the beginning, but with practice, diligence and trust, you’ll find solid ground and a routine that works for your unique needs.

I’d like to offer one last tip for writing partnership success: Embrace feeling uncomfortable until that feeling of discomfort becomes so natural that it actually is comfortable. And when you’re writing partner feels jittery, either let them steer the bike or let them get on the back, wrap their arms around your waist, and prove to them they can trust you not to crash and burn.

Sure, not all of my partnerships worked, but I promise you, I learned invaluable lessons from every person I have written with, and I am deeply grateful for the role they played in my life and in my writing.

Take a chance and trust someone with your words. Wow. That was probably the scariest sentence I’ve ever written! But do it. Try being a part of a team.

One more thing: get a collaboration agreement (you can find one on the WGA site). Divorce happens, even in the best of marriages. Always a good idea to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

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