The Joy of Treatments

How and Why to Write Treatments ☛

Many screenwriters will think this title a bad joke – there’s little they enjoy less than writing treatments. I use to have the same aversion, but I’ve learnt to love the little fellas, in fact my two latest feature film projects only exist in treatment form right now. Treatments can be fun: I’ll tell you why.

First – what is a ‘treatment’? I’m not playing dumb for the uninitiated – the term’s got everyone confused. If there ever was a clear, industry-recognised distinction between a treatment, a summary, a synopsis, a pitch and an outline it’s long since eroded. If anybody ever asks you for any of the above it’s a good idea to find out exactly how long a document they want and what sort of information they require it to include. What I mean by a treatment in this instance is a scene-by-scene summary of a screen story, written in prose with no dialogue, save for the odd essential line, the length to be anything between about 5 and 15 pages (usually around the middle of that range). The storytelling should be in proportion – if your treatment is 10 pages long, page 5 should mark the middle of the eventual screenplay. Some people use treatments to include a sort of sales pitch ‘this is a tale of revenge and forgiveness’ or ‘my story taps into current concerns about…’ – that’s a different sort of treatment/outline/pitch/whatever.

People also draw distinctions between ‘sales’ documents and ‘working’ documents; a sales document you might present to producers or funding bodies, a working document is just for you to work out the story in your own head. While it’s important to bear in mind who you’re expecting to read your treatment, I think it is possible, although not always easy, to write a treatment that works for both purposes.

Angelina Jolie gets the treatment in "Mr & Mrs Smith"

Okay, what’s so great about treatments? First off, they allow you to see the shape of your story more clearly, especially if you start by writing a shortish treatment: you can see all the dramatic peaks and troughs and where they come in relation to each other. Treatments encourage you to get that shape right. Writing a treatment takes a quarter of the time it takes to write a screenplay and, because it’s a document that can be put together in days rather than weeks, it allows you to work more freely, get less attached to things. Someone suggests changing the whole second half? It might take you a weekend, but if it’s a promising idea it’s worth trying it out. Changing the second half of a full screenplay is the work of a week or two, a task more difficult to take lightly. This flexible approach to story structure is vital: more often than not it’s the broad strokes of a story outline that will attract a producer and make for a film that stays in the audiences mind.

It’s not just about keeping a flexible approach to structure – treatments help you keep an open mind about characters too. Many writers, not just screenwriters, like to find characters by writing them, hearing them speak. While this technique does undoubtedly work, it leaves the writer in a tricky spot when it comes to changing the shape of the story. If a character has to behave differently come the denouement, then that difference in their personality might well need to be reflected back through the body of the script. If you’ve already fallen in love with your chirpy, wisecracking protagonist but a change in story means that he or she needs to be sullen and curmudgeonly, then that change will be a wrench; you may find yourself clinging on to those favorite lines that are no longer appropriate.

What’s more, if you manage to master the art of writing a treatment that makes a good read, you can win yourself industry backing before you write the script. Actually development money is like hen’s teeth in the UK right now, but getting a producer behind you before you write a line of dialogue does at least give you the encouragement that you’re not the only person who believes in your idea – my project Dark Eyed Sally Bright was picked up by producer Christine Hartland of Patchwork Productions based on just a treatment. Even if you don’t get a producer, you can get feedback on a treatment that will allow you to recognize and fix problems early. If absolutely nobody likes your treatment it may be you should think twice about spending weeks writing up that script.

So, what does one of these remarkable documents look like? Well here’s a link to a treatment that’s become famous in screenwriting circles – that for Mr and Mrs Smith. Sadly the form it takes might put off some British producers – it includes a half page synopsis and character backgrounds; more commonly these elements are included in the body of the text. It also wears its structure on its sleeve. However it does give you a clear and elegant understanding of the story, how it works and how it might play (even if you ignore the photos that someone’s helpfully added).

So far, so wonderful. So why doesn’t everyone write treatments? As I mentioned, some writers prefer to discover character and even plots by writing them in full, to see which way the characters take them. This approach is absolutely valid, if you can make it work. More experienced writers who work this way often have such a practiced instinct for story structure that, whether they know it or not, they will only allow their characters to lead them in directions that make story sense. Others will use the process as an experiment, knowing that a lot of the work they do on their first draft will be thrown away, natural and necessary offcuts. It’s not a particularly efficient way of working, but if that’s what you need to do your best work, so be it.

"The Ladykillers" - perfect treatment material

I won’t pretend that writing a treatment that reads well at 10 pages is an easy matter. It’s not a natural length in which to tell a story that would run 90 mins on the screen. There’s a danger that the treatment becomes a breathless sequence of events, like a child telling a story “and then… and then…!”. McKee recounts that back in the golden age of Hollywood, treatments ran nearer to 90 pages and were more like novels. The thinking was that writing a document like that before you approached the screenplay would ensure that you knew the story inside-out and would ensure a solid script without plot holes. I’ve not met anyone who’s actually tried this. Keep a firm focus on the emotions of the characters and you can usually steer away from your treatment being a whistle-stop tour of the plot.

It’s also true that some stories work better in treatment form than others. Plot-heavy tales, like political thrillers or detective stories, tend to work well as treatments; the treatment might even be easier to follow than the eventual script! Horror movies or psychological thrillers can work well, if you’re good enough at selling the creepy weirdness in summary form. Comedies are often at a disadvantage – something beautifully constructed like The Ladykillers or Trading Places will still be funny, even in summary. A movie based more on verbal banter or slapstick – more of a challenge. Subtle relationship dramas: even more difficult. I wouldn’t like to have to write a treatment for Lost in Translation – hardly anything happens.

Scarlett Johansson not doing very much

These exceptions aside however, if you can bring yourself to write a treatment and learn to do so in such a way that it’s easy to read, then you can save yourself a ton of work and a heartful of trouble.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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Comments
2 Responses to “The Joy of Treatments”
  1. ivan says:

    I can second the need to have, and also maintain, a short treatment form for a film. I wrote a treatment, that seemed to work very well, 14 pages. I then wrote a more lengthy version, with details and some dialogue, some 40 pages. That longer version was worked upon with over 12 versions. The result was a film that, in the end, lost it’s shape. We looked too much into the details. We changed things, that needed to be corrected overall, not in just one scene. Had we kept a distance, maintained a broader view of the story, this would not have happened.

  2. Good one, Guy – many excellent insights.

    I’d like to add one thing: many screenwriters think they can write treatments in the same style that they write scripts, but actually treatments demand a very different kind of language, one that allows for a constant shifting of pov from specific to abstract and back again – an ability to stand back and comment – which would be totally wrong in a script.

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