SEVEN STEPS TO A MORE EFFECTIVE FILM TREATMENT
In Hollywood, you’ll find many types of treatments. You’ll find treatments for chronic depression. You’ll find treatments for sagging skin and receding hairlines. With little effort, and you’ll find treatments for alcohol abuse, drug abuse, spousal abuse and even self-abuse.
And then you’ll find treatments for motion picture screenplays.
Of all the treatments practiced by entertainment industry professionals, the screenplay treatment is perhaps the most challenging and, potentially, the most rewarding.
Although treatments have been around as long as the motion picture industry itself, there remains a great deal of ignorance as to exactly what a treatment is, how one is used, and the shape and form one should take. Because of this ignorance, a good number of screenwriters are losing out on potential sales — and making the job of writing a marketable script more difficult for themselves.
If you plan to make screenwriting your vocation, do yourself a favor and learn how to write a good treatment. Your professional life will be sooooo much easier.
A Bit of History
In the beginning, movies were silent. Motion pictures were just that: pictures that moved. Dialogue was something printed on cards known as “titles.” As a result, for the motion pictures’ first three decades, the document we now call a “screenplay” simply did not exist. Instead, writers penned motion picture “treatments.” Via the treatment, a writer laid his story out step by step, including such information as the scene location and the actions each character performed therein. The resulting treatment was thus the written “blueprint” the director used to plan and then film their productions.
With the coming of sound in 1927, a new way of conveying a film’s story had to be devised. The result, what we call the “screenplay,” fused the pure visual aesthetics of the silent film treatment with the dialogue slugs found in theatrical scripts. But while screenplays ultimately supplanted treatments as the final film “blueprint,” they did not render treatments obsolete.
To the contrary, treatments found new currency as sales tools and as valuable instruments writers could use to increase their efficiency.
So, Then, Just What is a Treatment?
A motion picture treatment is best described as a screenplay that contains everything you need to make a movie except the dialogue. Like the Hollywood treatments of old, they break the story down step by step, scene by scene, describing the action intended to take place on the screen. One can think of a treatment as a movie transcription created by a deaf person. Reading a treatment, you’ll not only understand the story, but exactly how the story unfolds.
It is that last factor that makes treatments so valuable to studios and production companies as well as to writers.
Unlike a synopsis, which is usually just a two- or three-page-long distillation of a narrative, a treatment is a rich, highly detailed explication that gets into the nuts and bolts of how that narrative will be presented on film. Treatments not only allow studio decision-makers to evaluate a story’s idea, but also its intended execution.
Studios often use treatments when deciding which writer(s) to assign to a property they have in development. Give five writers a novel to adapt, and they are likely to all come back with a similar synopsis, which is just a retelling of the novel’s main plotline. But their treatments are likely to vary considerably. Each treatment will, by nature, have a very different take on the proposed film’s structure, tone, pacing, etc., as well as the number of characters used, each person’s role in the story and the amount of screen time they enjoy. Comparing treatments allow decision-makers to better choose between each writer’s “vision.”
In additional to selling scripts, many screenplays use treatments as a transitional step between synopsis and screenplay. By breaking their story down scene by scene, they can play with the story’s mechanics and nail down the structure before taking on the daunting task of writing dialogue. If they need to make changes, it’s much easier to do so when the script is in treatment form compared to when it’s a full-blown screenplay.
Frankly, once you know your screen story backwards and forwards, putting in dialogue is a breeze.
The Seven Steps to Effective Treatment Writing
Here, then, are the seven steps to writing an effective screenplay treatment:
1. Write in the present tense. Like regulation screenplays, treatments are told in the present tense. The description essentially narrates the action as if it was unfolding in front of us in real time.
2. Use traditional scene slugs. Although not required, it’s often easier to write — and to read — a treatment if you slug each scene as an “INT.” or “EXT.” just as you would in a screenplay. Doing so also makes it easier to turn the treatment into a screenplay once you decide to move on to the final step.
3. Tell the story, don’t explain it. As in a screenplay, treatments can only contain that information that can be portrayed on screen. You can’t tell us a character’s thoughts, provide biographical background, or communicate any other information not readily available to the viewer.
Although tempting, you can’t include a phrase like, “Our hero, Captain Jack Powers, is a ten-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Twice wounded in Afghanistan, he bears both the physical and psychic scars of his many years of military service.” Useful information, yes, but how would this information actually be communicated on screen? Putting Powers in uniform could tell us he’s a Marine. Or maybe he’s now a civilian with a USMC “Semper Fi” tattoo on his forearm. Making him in his mid-30s suggests how long he could have been in the service, and adding some scars to his face and perhaps even giving him a slight limp could suggest he’s seen action. There could also be a scene at his home where his medals are in a framed display — or perhaps hidden away in a drawer. (How Powers chooses to display his medals could tell us a lot about how he feels about his military experience.) The point is, this is all visual information you need to spell out in your treatment.
4. Be really detailed. When it comes to action scenes, the more detail the better. It’s not enough to know that a fight occurs. Readers want to know how the fight is staged, how it’s fought, the ebb and flow of dominance, any handy props brought into the brawl, etc. In short, write action scenes just like you’re writing the actual screenplay.
5. Include the emotions. Even without dialogue, you can — and should — put as much emotional content into your scenes. The feelings behind actions and reactions is just as important as the action themselves. Remember, emotions are things actors can “play” even without dialogue. Actors don’t need words to convey anger, outrage, sadness, tenderness, love, euphoria, depression, etc. Always make emotion part of your description.
6. Describe the dialogue exchanged. In your screenplay, characters will talk to each other, so use your treatment to indicate what information they exchange and how they exchange it. In short, use the treatment form to describe the dialogue you intend to eventually write without actually getting into the specific verbiage. (E.g., “Powers tearfully confesses to having mistaken the eleven-year-old Afghan boy for a terrorist and shooting him in cold blood.”)
7. Yes, even include some dialogue. If your screenplay is to include key lines of dialogue meant to drive the action forward or echo throughout the story, (e.g., “Make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “May the Force be with you,” “Are you not entertained!!!”), insert them into your description at the points they’d actually appear in your screenplay.
How long should a treatment be? Many treatments run forty to sixty pages. Yes, that’s a lot of work. But doing all the heavy lifting at this stage of development makes it less likely you’ll have to do it later when the page counts get even higher.
Master the art and science of creating motion picture treatments and you’ll significantly increase your marketability as a writer, and probably improve the screenplays you ultimately sell as well.
– Allen B. Ury