Putting Treatments on the Couch
Treatments are misunderstood and undervalued. It’s time to investigate why they’re an invaluable tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox.
Imagination can be the writer’s worst enemy. Imagining your story in too many genres rather than choosing one (or maybe two) and consequently creating a genre-slurry. Imagining too many alternate character beats and thereby being unable to commit to the right one. Imagining too many brilliant plot twists and cramming them all into Act Three when even one could adversely affect the emotional impact of your climax.
Where the screenwriter’s imagination can be at its least helpful is when it imagines a narrative so perfectly that the writer utterly fails to transmit any of this imagination on the page. Where this can hurt the writer most is the ‘Outline’, especially when they believe that an ‘Outline’ can relay elements which it was never designed to encapsulate or encompass (of course screenplays can also suffer from this problem). And although this disconnect is relevant to all screenwriters, it’s especially pertinent for those in the UK.
UK screenwriters still trail their U.S. cousins in terms of creating a fully-realised story world in the mind’s eye of a reader. They also lag behind their American counterparts when it comes to writing a ‘Treatment’, which is not only a great discipline in terms of relaying a fully-imagined world to a reader – it’s also the best single way a screenwriter can engage a reader with their project.
A great discipline in terms of relaying a fully-imagined world to a reader and the best single way a screenwriter can engage a reader with their project.
A good example of this is the way in which U.S. based writers get to practice their Treatment-writing skills when they are asked to give their “take” on a project (adaptation, concept, sequel, reboot, spin-off or screenplay of which everything has been rejected but the controlling idea). In terms of its aims, this “take” is synonymous with a Treatment, even though it may not always be submitted as such.
This kind of work is only possible within a system where a succession of screenwriters is asked to submit a “take” (or sometimes multiple “takes”) until eventually one (or sometimes several, with elements taken from each) are selected to go forward to screenplay.
Indeed, UK screenwriters often write an Outline when what they should be writing is a Treatment. Outlines are ideal for when a writer is already commissioned – or already has two feet planted firmly inside a producer’s office.
Outlines work best when the commissioning party pretty much knows what they’re going to get in terms of quality and style – which means the writer will already have had film and/or TV and/or a play produced (and this is probably the reason why the screenwriter is in the commissioning editor’s or producer’s office to begin with).
There’s another irony here, too. By reasons of culture and economies of scale, North American readers are much more practised at reading scripts than readers working in the UK (despite the best efforts of bodies like The Script Factory and ourselves) because North American readers are immersed in screenplays much quicker and far deeper than UK readers – and they read a much higher volume of scripts (and generally of a much higher quality).
All this means that the benefits of writing a Treatment are threefold:
1) You are forced to focus on the way you tell your story (the genuinely mission-critical part) rather than the story itself (still important, but less so); remember there’s only so many stories – ways to tell those stories are infinite.
2) You have a much better chance of your story being fully realised in the imagination of the reader.
3) You will write a more fully-realised screenplay if you write a treatment first because you will know your characters, your story, your genre, your tone and your story world better if you ‘treat’ them. This is also invaluable when it comes to pitch and script meetings.
The word was coined to mean a written description of how a story is literally ‘treated’ – in other words, what it will look, sound – and most importantly – feel like. To reiterate: it’s about the way you tell your story.
Whereas an Outline is a description of what happens with very little room for style, tone or emotion, a Treatment should be as immersive a reading experience as a short story but with the present-tense immediacy of a screenplay. With an Outline the style, tone and emotion are covered by a combination of produced work, in-the-room pitch, producer’s/director’s ‘vision’ document, story bible (for TV), mood deck or reel.
The experience of reading a great Treatment should be the closest possible unfiltered emotional experience to watching the film that exists in the head of the writer at the time the Treatment is written (even more than reading the screenplay, if such is already written).
One could even argue that a narrative feature or TV episode can be created five times:
First, in the mind of the screenwriter.
Second, on the page as a treatment.
Third, on the page as a screenplay.
Fourth, when it’s shot.
Fifth, when it’s edited.
(It should appeal to the screenwriter’s ego – in a healthy way – that the first two of these are 100% under the control of the screenwriter).
1) Write in the present tense.
2) Use short paragraphs.
3) Emotion is key – make the reader feel not just what a character feels, but what the entire story world feels like (also remember touch, smell, taste, hearing and seeing; indeed, in a film/TV Treatment, touch, smell and taste – experiences internal to a character – can be related in a way second only to when an actor lives the moment).
4) A character’s internal thoughts and feelings can be described, but they need organically to flow from the way story impacts character (and they can be italicized). This is a major difference between the Treatment and the Outline. The key is to ensure that the reader feels and sees the story from inside the key characters rather than from outside them as with an Outline.
5) Style is key – grammar and sentence structure are looser than they would be with a short story, but not as loose as they can be within a screenplay.
6) Tone is also key – use language that both fits the genre and inhabits the story’s tone.
7) Key dialogue is reported.
8) A very small number of key lines of dialogue can be punched-out with speech marks.
9) Use metaphor, simile, repetition and other literary devices (in terms of both effect and quantity, use as you would in prose fiction and poetry rather than how you would in a screenplay).
10) Optimum length is between 32 and 48pp (i.e. roughly half the page count of the equivalent screenplay).
Here is the same screenplay beat rendered in three different ways: (NOTE: Each has been amplified to emphasize the differences).
She grabs the gun and shoots her father dead.
Lianne reaches out for the gun – hesitates for a l o n g moment – then finally takes the gun and shoots Oswald through the heart. And again. Flowers of blood bloom on Oswald’s chest.
Lianne SCREAMS as she empties the rest of the clip.
The SOUND of blood dripping to the ground MIXED with the rhythm of Lianne’s heartbeat.
She drops the gun. Takes a step back. Smiles.
Happy Father’s Day.
She’s gone through hell and back to reach this moment, but it’s like the gun is rushing away from her. Like her fingers belong to someone else. All the pain. All the loss. And she still can’t do it. Still the little girl lost. Still the soft cushion spilling coward’s feathers. Get a grip, bitch. She catches herself thinking with his voice. Using his words. It’ll never end. Can never end. Then it hits her. Cold and sharp. She can silence his voice forever.
She takes the gun and shoots him through the heart. She can taste the rage on her tongue. Or is it the blood? Someone is screaming. It’s primal. It’s her. She’s the one screaming. Screaming it all out of her. A roiling torrent of hatred. Filling the room with her rage as she empties the clip into the father who made her – body and soul.
Finally, there’s silence. Except for the pounding of her heart and the drip-drip-drip of his blood. She remembers today’s date. Shafts of sunlight caress her sweat-sheened face. She glistens, as if new-born from a chrysalis. Lianne smiles as she murmurs under her breath, “Happy Father’s Day.”
There are three stages at which writing a Treatment is appropriate:
1) As an initial brainstorm for a narrative feature or TV pilot – foregrounding visual impact and emotional engagement.
2) Once a first draft screenplay or Outline has been written – as a sole-element pitch (i.e. sent out without any additional material). Use the feedback on your Treatment to redraft the screenplay. Then redraft the Treatment once you have a polished final draft script (or, better still, start again from a black page).
3) Once a polished final draft screenplay has been written – as a sole-element pitch, but with the screenplay to follow upon a positive reaction to the Treatment.
Writing is hard. Rewriting is even harder. The thought of having to write a document that seems at best tangential to the screenwriting process can be seen as at best agonising and at worst a total waste of time.
The stark facts are that writing Treatments will improve your characters (a ‘Treatment’ puts your characters on the psychoanalyst’s couch in a way no other story document can), your visual writing, your pitching and your storytelling. Most importantly, writing Treatments will improve your emotional writing – and we’re all ultimately in the emotion business.
So treat your material, treat your characters and treat yourself. Go write a treatment!
– Struggling with a screenplay or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, everyday… check out our range of services for writers & filmmakers here.