Today’s GUEST ARTICLE comes from stellar long-time contributor MulesandMud, who often offers the best advice on the board. Even I get jealous of his vast knowledge at times. Since some of you have been asking what the hell treatments are and how to write them, Mules has kindly offered to write a guest article about the elusive little buggers. Hope you enjoy it!
I know some of you think that loglines are the ugly babies of the screenwriting world, but a logline is an adorable toddler compared to the deformed, puberty-stricken creature that is a film treatment.
A treatment is by definition incomplete, even moreso than a screenplay. It’s a work in progress, an idea on its way to becoming a script (which in turn is on its way to becoming a movie).
That’s the reason that treatments are so much harder to find than screenplays. Most writers have no desire to show their treatments to anyone. They are almost always ungainly and imperfect documents, so seeing one is a peek behind the curtain of a writer’s process.
And as you all know, it’s not very pretty back there.
Still, whether we like treatments or not, a pro scribe needs to know how to write them, full stop. Anyone who claims to have a screenwriting career that doesn’t require treatment-writing is either lying or living a charmed life that has no relevance to the rest of us.
So, with that in mind…
WHAT IS A TREATMENT?
Like a lot of film industry jargon, the term “treatment” is intentionally ambiguous, so that important people can toss the word around without quite knowing what it means.
To understand what a treatment is, it’s helpful to understand it in the context of other story-building documents often used in the development process. Here’s a quick and not-at-all-comprehensive list:
BEAT SHEET – This is exactly what it sounds like, a list of the major story beats. That list might be just a series simple words or phrases at first, and rarely exceeds a page.
STEP OUTLINE – This is also essentially a list, only more elaborate, charting out each individual scene of your script with descriptions for each entry, often detailing things like locations, characters present, and dramatic or thematic developments.
SYNOPSIS – This is a short prose description of your story. It typically ranges from one to five pages in length. Depending on the size and the purpose of the document, it might also be called a SUMMARY or ONE-PAGER (hint: don’t call it a one-pager if it’s three pages long).
TREATMENT – This is a longer and more comprehensive prose version of your script, normally around 10 to 30 pages long; the level of detail varies accordingly. As with step outlines, longer treatments may attempt to detail each individual scene. The longest ones might also include lines of dialogue or scene headings, at which point the document is probably more of a SCRIPTMENT, a hybrid of prose and screenplay formatting.
Now, you’re likely to hear all of the above terms used vaguely or interchangeably. And to make things especially confusing, the word OUTLINE can be used to refer to any or all of the above. Don’t go crazy over the semantics, just try to be consistent about what you refer to as what.
Also, never be afraid to ask for clarification when someone requests a particular type of document from you. To paraphrase a great swordsman, they might not think it means what you think it means.
When asked to write a treatment/outline/whatever, your smartest move is to ask the asker to send you a sample treatment/outline/whatever that they’ve received in the past, to show you exactly what format they’re looking for.
Framed properly, this request won’t sound amateurish, it’ll prove you’re a pro who knows how unreliable these terms can be. Plus, it might give you a chance to see another writer’s treatment, which is always interesting.
WHEN TO WRITE A TREATMENT
Almost without exception, treatments are written early in the development process, before you start writing the actual script. If a producer asks you to write a treatment or outline for an existing script, they probably mean a synopsis (see above).
Here, we need to understand that there are two very different reasons why you might write a treatment:
1.) Because you find treatments useful for your own story development.
In this case, the treatment is a WORKING DOCUMENT, a writing tool for the eyes of you and your collaborators. This is a purely optional tool, and its value depends on each person’s individual writing process.
Personally, I tend to create all sorts of outline- and treatment-type documents before beginning a script. I’ve also been known to make look books, research binders, etc, plus unique documents tailored each project (e.g., for a TV pilot I made an elaborate family tree mapping the genealogies of my characters; for a contained horror script I used drafting software to mock up a small town police station).
Again, this is a completely optional version of a treatment, whereas the second reason makes a treatment trickier, if not impossible, to avoid.
2.) Because someone asks you for a treatment.
In this case, the treatment is a PITCH DOCUMENT, a selling tool designed to convince someone else that your story would make a great movie. Most often, a producer or exec will request one of these after a pitch meeting or development conversation.
This kind of treatment (or outline, or synopsis, etc…see above) is inevitable; sooner or later, someone will ask you for one. I’ve done a couple dozen of these over the years, both for ideas of my own and for ideas pitched to me by producers or execs. A few have gotten me paid in one way or another, but most of them haven’t. That’s the nature of the beast.
It’s important to note here that good treatments take serious time and effort.
Most folks who ask you for a treatment won’t want to pay for it, even though they realize it’s a lot to ask. In my opinion, once a tight treatment has been written, all of the hardest parts of the screenwriting process have essentially been done. You need to think long and hard about whether the project in question is worth that kind of commitment.
It may be seem worthwhile to write a treatment for a concept that a manager or producer has sent your way, even just for the sake of building a relationship. Depending on the situation, that may be true, especially for an unproven writer looking for industry access or representation.
However, make sure you don’t go in blind. Do your best to understand who you’re getting involved with, and what the realistic prospects are for the project.
HOW TO WRITE A TREATMENT
This bring us back to the distinction between a WORKING DOCUMENT and a PITCH DOCUMENT. That is, a treatment you write for yourself vs. one you write for someone else.
Though we could call both of these documents treatments, they have nearly opposite goals.
What’s the difference? In short, BULLSHIT.
When you write a working treatment, bullshit is your enemy.
Here, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. Lay your story out in graphic, unsexy detail, leaving nothing out. Identify all of its flaws. Make its weak points clearly visible. Figure out which beats you’ve left half-considered and which ones you may have overthought.
This way, when it comes time to write the script, you have solutions in mind, or at least a firm grasp of the problems. Otherwise, why bother?
On the other hand, when you write a pitch treatment, bullshit is your friend.
Let’s say a producer or exec was intrigued by your pitch, and is now asking for a treatment to see if your idea can go the distance. The document you present may decide whether or not you make a sale.
That means you need to bring the sexy in a big way.
You probably won’t know every detail of your story, but the treatment needs to read like you do. You’ll need to gloss over plot gaps or character issues, hiding any problems you haven’t solved yet (fact: no matter how much work you do, there will always be problems left to solve).
The treatment needs to be paced right, giving enough specifics to suggest that you know what you’re talking about, but not so much that it gets bogged down in a rushed list of plot and scene ingredients. Don’t try to cram everything in there: for the sake of clarity and rhythm, you’ll have to leave some things out.
These pages need to read like a movie, in some ways even more smoothly and cinematically than a screenplay does.
Most importantly, the treatment needs to nail the tone of your story. It can’t be just a list of characters and scenes. You need to get your script’s personality across. Give the thing a little sizzle, as they say.
The good news, sort of, is that you basically have to write a version of this document anyway as preparation for a good verbal pitch, which normally amounts to a 10-minute monologue in which you, the writer, introduce your concept and walk listeners through the entire story, hopefully without boring the hell out of anyone.
In most ways, a great pitch treatment reads exactly like a great verbal pitch sounds: as though someone were telling you the story a film so well that by the end it felt like you’d just watched the actual movie.
If that sounds hard, well, it is. Most treatments, even by great writers, tend to be boring reads, more functional than entertaining. In some ways, treatment writing is harder than scriptwriting, since you’re forced to accomplish a screenplay’s worth of story in just a fraction of the words.
Finally, a quick word on treatment length:
For a working treatment, the longer the better. That doesn’t mean pad the thing unnecessarily; it means make an effort to get everything relevant down on paper, without prejudice. There’s no such thing as too much information here. It’s all grist for the mill of the actual screenplay.
For a pitch treatment, less is more. Try to keep things short, around 15 pages, otherwise the treatment may get bogged down in minutiae. This may sound like less work than the longer version, but in my experience, it’s actually more work, since you usually have to write it all before you know what you can omit. Especially with complex genre plots, paring down a verbal pitch or treatment to a streamlined length can feel impossible at times.