A Screenwriter’s Guide to Writing Partnerships – Part I

For many writers who dread the thought of facing the empty page alone day in and day out, writing partnerships may sound like an ideal solution. After all, with a writing partner someone is always waiting for your pages and helping you along. As you go through both the highs and the lows, you are no longer going it alone. Momentum is easier to sustain, and accountability easier to create. You have a partner in crime. A buddy. A counterpart on the very same journey with you.

A few months ago, a writing client of mine was considering bringing on a writing partner to work on a television project he’d been struggling with. But at every turn, he was advised against it. After discussing this possibility with me, his manager and a development executive he had been working with, the consensus was clear: do not bring a writing partner on for the project unless you are ready to make the commitment (and with it the concessions that come with it) for the long run.

This industry has a slew of writing partnership success stories: Larry Karaszewski & Scotty Alexander (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Big Eyes, Ed Wood), Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot (The Lone Ranger, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek) and Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant (Night at the Museum, Balls of Fury, The Pacifier) to name just a few. But despite these very successful duos, the reality of it is that most writing partnerships do come to an end, usually at a fiery, difficult point. Having helped a number of screenwriters through writing-partnership divorce (usually, writers who are part of a writing partnership come to me at a breaking point), I thought it wise to put together a general guide to partnerships, so that if you do decide to enter into one you do so with your eyes wide open, and aware not only of the immediate benefits, but also the challenges you may face down the road.

Solid reasons to form a writing partnership in the first place

If and when seeking out a writing partnership, here are some of the things you should be looking for:

  • Complimentary skill sets

The other writer brings a skill set to the table which compliments your own. While you write great characters, they are strong with structure. You write snappy dialogue, and they bring in the big ideas. In time, you want to develop your own skill set so that you may not be perceived as handicapped. But from the beginning, you want to compliment rather than overlap. Therein lies the basis for a solid partnership.

  • Similar long term goals

Whether you are looking to end up writing big studio features or in the writer’s room, your partner’s professional goals are in line with (if not identical to) yours. It is important that you and your partner are clear about where it is you want to go in your professional career. In order for the partnership to succeed, you have to be prepared to travel this journey together with the aim at arriving at a unified goal.

  • Both you and your partner are better together than on your own

They say that – in non-writing, romantic partnerships – a good couple is made of two people who are better together than they are on their own. In writing partnerships, too, this holds true. When you write together, both you and your writing partner produce better work and generate better results. You elevate the work and make each other better. It’s that simple.

  • You want to write for television

Television staffing heavily favors writing partnerships. Why would they not? When staffing writing partners, the show gets two writers for the price of one, making staffing a team vs. an individual that much more attractive. If television is your destination and you find someone with whom you can see yourself writing for the long term, being part of a writing partnerships will certainly work in your favor.

All the wrong reasons

Just as there are good reasons to enter into a writing partnership, there are also wrong reasons for entering into such a long term writing arrangement. What are those reasons? Here are a few of the wrong reasons that I’ve seen induce writers into partnerships:

  • I hate asking for notes!
    One up-and-coming writer found a great source for notes: a good friend who was an aspiring writer in his own right, and had the uncanny ability to drill down into the work with ease. The writer found herself turning to her friend for notes over and over again (prior to launching into the writing partnership). Getting uncomfortable by taking much without giving any in return, the primary writer finally decided to ask the secondary writer to be her writing partner… Only to have to extract herself from the partnership a few years later when she grew bitter and frustrated that – outside of notes – she was doing the heavy lifting on the writing across the board on her own.
  • I need someone to hold my hand to the fire!
    In another life, back in the days when I was still writing, a friend asked me to get into a partnership with him on a script. Of the two of us, and despite one of my scripts having already been picked up, he was by far the one with both the reputation and experience, so I was happy to have been asked. But pretty quickly, I realized he wasn’t looking for a writing partner to contribute to the project; he had simply hoped to find someone to help realize his specific vision. When I told him I didn’t think we were a good fit he understood, but then lamented “How am I going to do this without you waiting on me for pages every day?” The truth of the matter was that he wasn’t looking for a writing partner. He just needed someone to hold him accountable.
  • The thought of facing the industry alone is too much.
    In my experience, many writers have contemplated a partnership just so that they don’t have to face the industry alone. Going into a room for a general or a pitch meeting just seems so much more tolerable with a partner in crime! The truth of the matter is that you don’t know how your potential partner in crime will perform, and whether one day they will be an asset or a hindrance. One writing partnership that I recently came across started out as total rock stars but has recently dissolved because one of the partners was bi-polar, and therefore resorted going into the room drunk if only to calm his nerves. Let’s just say that those meetings didn’t exactly work out.

To learn more about how representation handles partnerships, consequences from partnership fallout and receive partnership guidelines, check out Part 2 of this Screenwriting Partnership Guide on ScriptMag.com!