A Flight Crew’s job is to get a plane into the air. A Pit Crew works to get a single car back onto the track. And in the same manner, groups of writers come together to write a single screenplay. With those other teams, there are stakes. There’s pressure. Lives hang in the balance if the team doesn’t function cohesively. Screenwriting doesn’t have that level of pressure, but it can be just as taxing as getting a commercial aircraft into the sky.
Working in a group on a single writing project has its challenges. Some creatives are used to working alone. Creative, talented people are not all very mature. Hell, we’re not even all smart. Often times, we learn this first hand in writing groups. But writers working together on a screenplay have a goal, and that’s what gets them through to the end. And there are helpful ways to go about reaching a finished screenplay when working with others.
Large production screenplays are penned by groups of writers. James Gunn and Nicole Perlman wrote this summer’s newest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy. And Helen Mirren's new film The Hundred-Foot journey had screenwriter writer Steven Knight adapting Richard C. Morais' original book. These are big budget movies with a lot riding on them and studios usually trust the job of delivering a solid screenplay to pairs or groups of "studio" writers. Groups hold each other accountable and provide more pairs of eyes to make sure what is written can be sensibly made and enjoyably watched. But, all the resources and pressure don’t make writing in a group any easier.
I have written with stand up comedians, sketch writers in the three different sketch comedy groups I’ve been in, I’ve written scripts with friends, and I’ve written an entire drama series meant for television with a twenty-two person graduate program. And in almost none of those groupings did we have an easy time writing together. But it was instructional. And there were a few things I picked up about successfully working in groups to write material.
Whether or not one is in a writing group or a pit crew, every member has to be attentive. Everyone involved has to listen to people and to the ideas they present. When brainstorming ideas collaboratively, I offer and appreciate encouragement, suggestions, and alternative ideas if my fellow writers don’t like the ones I give. It’s more productive to work that way.
I do my best to contribute and defend my ideas. I believe that my ideas are good and I try to have confidence in myself. If I didn’t have talent, I wouldn’t be in the room working with other talented people. But sometimes writers, myself included, believe their own ideas trump other people’s ideas. When that happens, the writer on the receiving end of the arrogance has to stick to their guns and speak up. Otherwise, they’ll get rolled over, ignored, and be made into a noncontributing member of the team.
I try not to take things personal. Remember what I said about everyone involved not being equally mature? Or smart? When I or the people around me get difficult, I do my best to carry on, get the project finished, and beat them at their favorite board game or at darts later.
Finally, I enjoy the process. I grow as a writer when I collaborate with other writers, whether or not it’s a good experience. If the people I’m writing with are talented, I become a better writer and collaborator. When they’re bad, I learn how to handle working with them and how to not be as frazzled the next time. Writing a lot and working on a lot of projects ensures there will definitely be a difficult next time. But it will also mean more experience and more finished work under the belt if we get that screenplay out to the world.