12 essentials for writing a film or TV treatment
24 Thursday Oct 2013
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Writing a treatment for a screen story is one of the most difficult forms of writing there is. I know, as a director and producer, as well as writer, I read hundreds, and most fall totally flat. Somehow you have to reduce your wonderful 99-120 pages of brilliance to a tiny fraction and still show me all the glory that is in the screenplay. If you keep your head, keep disciplined and work hard, you might be able to succeed.
1. Keep it short
If I’ve asked you for a treatment of a specific length, that’s what you deliver. It’s tough, but this is where you show your professionalism. If no length has been specified, aim for no more than 2 pages, maximum, at normal font and page settings. Don’t try to be clever and use 4pt font, no margins or paragraph breaks! It just annoys people.
2. Remember the purpose of a treatment
The purpose of a treatment is simple: to get someone to read the script. That’s all. You don’t have to include every joke, or any of the subplots, or anything that gets in the way of this one aim. Including making it too long!
3. Make it reflect the balance of the script
The treatment should roughly reflect the balance of the script itself – don’t spend a page on a half on the first Act, and half a page on the rest. You laugh? It’s easily done. Remember, you don’t have to include all the information that’s in the first 30 pages – you just have to get me to read the script. (In fact you probably need to cut much of that information from the script too, but that’s for another day).
4. Include the script’s ending
I know. You want to leave me on a cliff-hanger, wanting to know more. Or you’ve got a great twist you don’t want to reveal. Hard cheese. If you’re a professional, you include the ending. And if the reader is a professional, they’ll understand that the twist will come as a great surprise. Assuming it works, that is.
5. make it readable and moving
A treatment is not a shopping list or an instruction manual. A good treatment reads easily, drawing you in and involving you in the emotions of the story. That also means that your style and tone should reflect those emotions and reflect the genre. If the script is a comedy, make me smile. If a horror, use words that will send a chill up my spine.
6. Show me an active protagonist
Most treatments fail because the protagonist is passive or reactive. Make sure yours drives the story forwards through the actions she takes. If she is in a lousy job, grousing and doing nothing about it until a paragraph before the end, I’m not going to be drawn in. Give her a goal (to win saleswoman of the month, to become a successful puppeteer, to murder her line-manager…) and show how she fights to attain it.
7. Avoid and then… and then…
Plot is important, but it’s like a dish with no flavouring, and leads to the dreaded shopping list of actions and then… and then… To repeat, a treatment is not a shopping list, it’s the engrossing story of one or more characters struggling with their flaws. Make sure you alternate plot with character journey – almost every other sentence. Follow Gerry fights across the windswept mountain to save his partner with For once in his life, he has put someone else’s needs ahead of his own.
8 CUT NEGATIVES, AVOID IMPERSONALS AND MAKE PASSIVES INTO ACTIVES
Toughen up your language. Negative statements just waste valuable space. Harriet can’t afford a car gives me no images. What about Harriet struggles to the office on a rusty old bike. Impersonals and passives are weak. Change It is important that Francisco speaks out to Francisco must speak out. And Ebo is kissed by Yolande to Yolande kisses Ebo. Shorter and more direct.
9. while you make your sentences link and flow
Ensure your treatment flows naturally. Don’t start every sentence with the subject, but use linking words and phrases such as While… moreover… on the other side of the planet… unknown to Gawain… And always remember the sheer power of but and however for creating twists and suspense.
10. steal actioning words from actors
If your treatment is full of he tells her and she explains to him you’ve got problems. Try to find more exciting action. And if the most exciting action involves talk, then do what actors and directors do, use “actioning” words that bring the talk to life. Actioning words invoke drama and conflict – so instead of he tells it becomes he implores, begs, cajoles, wheedles, persuades…
11. Stake the farm
If there’s nothing much at stake, you’ll lose me. Make sure there’s a lot at stake, and that I know it. What will be so dreadful if Romeo and Juliet don’t get together? Why should I care if Thelma and Louise don’t escape? What awful consequences will ensue if Bill isn’t killed? Tell me.
12. put pictures on the screen of my mind
While you struggle to squeeze your plot onto a page or two, remember you’re selling a screenplay. Leave me with at least two or three vivid, exciting images – preferably more – help me picture the big showstopper car chase, the icebound winter forest locale, the revelation at the climax of the Chinese opera… Don’t go overboard, but paint enough for me that I get the reason you’ve written this for TV or cinema.
And when you’ve done all the above, there’s one more – like it or not, you absolutely have to get professional feedback. Trying to judge your own treatment is like trying to cut your own hair. It might not cost as much, but I wouldn’t expect to win an Oscar for it.
If you liked this, then check out some of my other articles, or come to one of the workshops I run at Euroscript.
Twice a year, I run a one-day practical seminar for beginner and advanced writers – Exciting Treatments – where you get to develop your own treatment, using these 12 tools and many others that you’ll find make treatment writing much easier and more enjoyable. You have an opportunity to gain invaluable feedback at every stage, to learn three new language styles needed by writers of successful treatments, and see how to integrate plot and character with ease.