WRITING A SCREENPLAY
When you develop your story, the end result, of course, is a completed screenplay. But, as part of your writing process, it’s a good idea to write a film treatment. But what exactly is a treatment?
Simply put, a treatment is a narrative form of your story, told in prose format. Some screenwriters will begin the process of creating a screenplay by writing the treatment first. Others write it after the script is done. And some do it before and after. This serves several purposes, including:
- A way for you to formulate your ideas in a free-flowing format as you create your initial idea and build your story.
- A tool to help you during the rewriting process. By writing a treatment after you’ve completed a first draft, you may find it helpful in determining what is working and what is not.
- A submission to producers. Many producers do not have the time to read a script. But a treatment helps them “get” the gist of your story. It also gives them a sense of you as a writer. This usually comes after a you’ve submitted a synopsis (see below) or verbal pitch.
- A marketing tool for producers to seek studio or other funding. Producers often ask screenwriters to write a treatment once they have optioned or purchased the screenplay (or as part of the writer-for-hire process) to then submit to various funding sources.
It should be noted that a treatment is different from a synopsis. A synopsis is usually a one-page summary of your story that is designed to entice a producer to either request the treatment or the script itself. There is just enough detail in the synopsis to raise interest from a producer in the script, or in you, as the writer, when finding an agent or manager.
While it’s fine, and often a good idea, to include key lines of dialogue in the treatment, keep them at a minimum. You want to stay focused and maintain a flow as you tell the story. What’s important here is to remember that you are laying the groundwork for your script when starting the project with the treatment. And that you are creating excitement for the reader.
COMPOSING A FILM TREATMENT
What are the components of a good film treatment?
Your treatment should contain the following elements:
- Your logline – A short sentence or two as to what the story is about. Your logline, simply put, tells who (your main character) wants to achieve what (the goal) and stands in their way (the key obstacle). Think of this as laying the initial foundation for your treatment.
(For more on writing the logline, be sure to check this book)
- Characters – Focus on main characters. Bring them to life and make them feel as real as possible. Give them personality that will excite the reader and keep them invested in your story through to the end of the treatment. As for lesser characters, it’s okay to mention them, especially if your film treatment is for you as you begin crafting the story. But for a producer, too many characters may be confusing, detracting from the story itself.
- Genre should be clear – It should be obvious if it’s a comedy, romance, horror, etc. This comes from the style of the writing as well as the story itself.
- Story opening – A strong opening of your story should be evident in a strong treatment opening. This sets the tone for your script.
- Act summaries – Set up the world, the conflict, be clear as to main obstacles and stakes. Act one should clearly introduce the story world, let the reader know what the inciting incident is and lead to the call to action. Then, you want to build the stakes and obstacles that will be written in the second act, culminating with the climax and the…
- Final scenes – This is the payoff for everything in your treatment to this point.
Make sure you’ve left the reader as excited at the end as they were at the beginning. They will want to read your script.
The length of a treatment can vary, again depending on the purpose. When you are taking your idea and building the story prior to writing the actual script, a treatment can be any number of pages, 10-20, even up to 50 or more. Whatever it takes for you to best tell your story and prepare you for writing the screenplay.
When you submit a film treatment to a producer, consider 10 pages to be a sweet spot. Today, people’s attention spans have diminished, so you don’t want to submit too many pages and risk it being in the “for later” pile. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go longer if you need. If the treatment is well-written and excites the reader, then by all means go longer. Sometimes a producer will tell you how many pages, saving you from worrying about the length.
KEYS TO A GREAT FILM TREATMENT
Here are the keys to writing a great treatment:
- Excite the reader. Use descriptive wording that shows off your writing talent. Key lines of dialogue can help the reader get a better sense of the characters and you, as the writer.
- Focus on the hook of your story up front. Get the read excited right away as you would in a pitch.
- Make sure you don’t deviate from the screenplay itself. If you put a detail in the treatment, it better be in the script.
- Short paragraphs. Like in a script, white space on the page is pleasant to the reader’s eyes. Break up long paragraphs.
- Mistake-free. It should go without saying, but we all forget sometimes. Proofread for spelling and grammatical mistakes.
To help you write a treatment, here’s an exercise. The next time you watch a new film, sit down and write out a treatment for that film. Write as concisely as you can, but don’t leave important details out. If there’s a line of dialogue that resonates with you, put it in.
Just like the more scripts you write, the better screenwriter you become, writing the treatment makes you a better storyteller. It’s another tool in your arsenal on your way to career success as a screenwriter.