Sunday, April 26, 2009

Collaborative Writing in Prose and Screenwriting

A couple of people have asked me recently about my experience of collaborative writing.

My first exploration into this was way back in 1998 when I wrote a non-fiction book with my father. At that time everything about writing was new to me and I didn't worry at all that it might disrupt the creative process. Anything we wrote was better than anything we had written before.

He was the researcher on the project. He had the knowledge. We quickly evolved a system whereby we would consult about the contents of each chapter. He would then write a very rough first draft that contained all the information and I would work it up into a finished text, perhaps asking for more information along the way. The polarisation of roles meant we each knew what we had to do and the final manuscript had a coherent style.

That seems to be one of the big issues with collaborative prose writing - style. The Narrative voice is a significant aspect of the finished thing. It is hard (but not impossible) to hide the fact if different people have written different sections. Perhaps that is why collaborations in novel writing are comparatively rare.

Contrast that with screenwriting - where writing partnerships and teams are common. Next time you watch a movie or a television drama, have a look at the writing credit. One writer or many?

The prose that makes up the body of a screenplay is never seen by the audience. The only words of the writers that the audience get to know about are the words of dialogue.

My first experience of collaborative screenplay writing was with the novelist Clare Littleford. We had previously worked on a couple of performance pieces together, so were fully confident that the creative chemistry would work. But the experience exceeded our expectations. Each of the days we spent writing together were hugely productive. We had to force ourselves to take breaks from the writing, such was our excitement at the emerging story. And at the end of each writing day we were both so exhausted that we could barely speak in sentences.

In STORY, a superb book on screenwriting, Robert McKee asks what stories are made of. Not words, he says. Words may be used to record a story, but the substance of a story are moments of change.

When two writes set out to work together to create a new story, they are able to throw ideas around and create these moments of change from their imaginations. That part of the process works far better with two minds than with one - that is my experience, anyway. The part of the process in which you write the ideas down, perhaps that is more easily achieved by one person.

Clare and I mapped out chunks of our screenplay in note form whilst we were together. Then we divided it up and working individually wrote sections of the thing in screenplay format. After that we'd edit each other's work, harmonising the style as far as possible.

I'd be very interested to hear other people's experiences of collaborative writing.


Katy said...

That's very interesting, thank you Rod. In each collaboration, from what you've said it seems that you divide up the tasks (albeit differently in each case), go away, do your appointed bit, come back, compare, edit etc, repeat.

Interesting too about the merging of the voice, hadn't really thought about that. Thinking about it now, I have read one non-fic book where each of the 2 authors wrote different pieces and their 'voices' were quite different too - it worked well. But then I guess that's fair enough for some kins of non-fiction; I can see how merging the voices would be essential for many or most things. Lots to think about.

Thanks again, Katy

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks again Katy,

I have to say, the collaboration was different in each case because the chemistry was different.

Having had the pleasure of spending this afternoon working on the White Angel treatment with Ivory, I can say that this was different again. We came up with some really good developments that will significantly enrich the story.

I think that sometimes you can be braver when there are two people writing - and go places you might not have gone had you been writing solo.

And there was yet another collaborative project that I had a meeting about last night - which I have not written about on here yet. Again there, the meeting came up with some completely unexpected new directions, which I am very excited about.