POSTS Screenwriting

Top Ten Reasons to Write with a Partner

A former screenwriting student, Tom Kurzanski, e-mailed me one day:

I just wanted to thank you for planting the seeds of writing with a partner.  The seeds took root and I partnered up with a good friend and colleague of mine (Michael Young).  Now here I am with a TV pilot that, I feel, is some of the best writing I’ve ever done.

Tom isn’t alone. I’ve seen the interest in co-writing scripts rapidly rising among writers and students, among them Brian Sharpe & Iman Zawahry, cowriters of Tough Crowd.

“As a writer it is very important for me to have a cowriter to bring in a different perspective,” Image explained.

It was especially important in this film because the story was so close to me.  I have worked with Brian Sharpe as my cinematographer on my first film, and he was an amazing collaborator.  He truly inspires with a clear and unique understanding of the story.  We both come from religious backgrounds and understand each other’s sensibilities.

Both found the process of co-writing Tough Crowd a pleasure—and an advantage—even after Brian took a job in Chicago, and Iman remained at FSU’s Film School in Tallahassee.

“I found writing with a partner was a great way to work,” Brian said, “because (like the characters in the story) we both had the same goal of writing a script that made the audience laugh and challenged stereotypes.  Because we both knew what the end product was, we both know that each other’s comments and criticism would only strengthen the script.”

Co-writing the scripts proved to be an advantage, too, during the revision process.

“If I was writing, then Iman could remain objective and see if the revisions worked,” Brian explained.

Likewise, if I set the script aside and let Iman work on it, I could regain my objectivity and read the script with a fresh perspective.  Oftentimes we get too close to our own writing and our subjectivity causes a disconnect with the audience, so it’s great to have a teammate not only to cheer you on, but more importantly to remain objective and think like the audience. Tough Crowd was a great back-and-forth collaboration that we created together even while being 1000 miles apart.

Their collaboration was clearly successful—Tough Crowd won the Student Emmy Award for Best Comedy and is still being screened at film festivals around the world.

Each year the list of scrip partners and their successes grows longer (check out the Best Screenplay Oscars for ampersands, the industry designation for writing teams). Why?  Because as Tom and Matt Stevens and I and so many other have discovered, collaborative writing is one of the most production and successful ways to write short screenplays or features.  So if you’re interested in writing with a partner, I strongly suggest that you give it a try.

But this doesn’t mean that script partnering is easy.  It’s one of the most difficult relationships in the world because it’s really two relationships—a personal and a professional one—and both must be nurtured and maintained for the partnership to work.  If the personal relationship goes south, so does the writing.

“It’s hard to fake a working attitude when you’re disenchanted,” Larry Gelbart (Caesar’s Hour, M*A*S*H, Tootsie) told Matt & me when we interviewed him for our book Script Partners.

And writing with a partner is a big-time commitment.  Nine-to-fivers Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) only half-jokingly compare it to being in a prison.  Most other script partners compare it to a marriage, but Gelbart disagrees. “It’s harder than marriage!” he told us.

“Why?” we inquired.

“Because there’s no sex!” he laughed.  “There’s no way to kiss and make up!” (Unless you and your partner are married or otherwise romantically involved.)

But Matt & I—and the twenty script partners we interviewed—have found that the advantages of writing with a partner far outweigh the disadvantages (the most obvious being sharing the bottom line).  These are so many advantages, in fact, that Matt & I compiled a list of the…


1. Writing is lonely.  It doesn’t have to be.  And it isn’t if you co-write your scripts.

2. Writing with a partner doubles your chance for success.

3. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and co-writing scripts gives you a head start on mastering the collaborative process.

4. 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.

5. A writing workout partner helps you stay motivated, focused, and productive in the face of countless rejections (and it’s cheaper than antidepressants).

6. Two imaginations really are better than one—better brainstorming and creative breakthroughs.

7. Yin, meet Yang.  Complementing (and complimenting) each other can lead to stronger scripts.

8. A partner helps you work through writer’s block, if only because it’s embarrassing when both of you are staring at a blank page.

9. Collaboration not only improves mental health, it makes you a better writer—and a better person.

10. And, as Shrek’s cowriter Ted Elliott (who writes with Terry Rossio) said, “As you struggle as writers to perfect your craft, 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: Carpool lane.”

And these are just the top ten.

Personally, I never want to write scripts solo again.  As Phil Hay said when we asked if he would ever write scripts without his ampersand, Matt Manfredi (crazy/beautiful; story for The Tuxedo), “It would be very lonely and upsetting.”

Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen, head-writers of Friends, have co-written their scripts even as they rose to the rank of executive producers. “We both know on some level we could do this by ourselves,” Reich said, “but we’re better together and we prefer it that way.”

Harold Ramis has co-written scripts with different partners, from Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller (Animal House) to Peter Tolan (Analyze This, Analyze That). “It just adds so much to the work,” he said during a break from editing Analyze That.

Peter, for instance, will add just tremendously funny things and great scenes, great dialogue.  And there’s this synergistic benefit—it makes my work better, and together we’re better than probably either of us alone.  I can enjoy writing alone, but I think I’ve never been as good as with other people.  If I were limited by my own ability, my own imagination, I would be probably less than half as successful as I am,

he confessed, laughing.

For my money, Jim Taylor, who writes with Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), said it best when he told us, “Writing with Alexander at my side is much more pleasurable than working on my own.” Or as he told Scenario Magazine, “Just the writing process itself, of writing on my own, is very unpleasant and unproductive, and it’s just no fun.”

Fun is the reason Harold Ramis started writing with others.

“Here’s the secret,” he said:

When I was in college, there were things I was interested in academically, but nothing was as much fun as sitting around a room with really funny guys and laughing all the time.  I couldn’t think of anything better to do…and it occurred to me that people actually make a living doing this.  My very good friend in college was a guy named Michael Shamberg, who is Danny DeVito’s partner in a company called Jersey Films.  And Michael and I literally shook hands and said, “Let’s never take jobs we have to dress up for, and let’s only do what we enjoy.”

He laughed.  “You know you’re gonna struggle anyway, you might as well enjoy it.”

Excerpt from Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, 4th Edition by Claudia H Johnson © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

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