Whether you’ve had this idea cooking for a while or you just jotted it down on a cocktail napkin, before you jump headfirst into writing the screenplay, you should write a treatment. Not only will this be an enormous benefit to selling your screenplay, but it also will benefit the story. You can edit a ten page summary better than you can a hundred-page script. Promise.
So what goes into a treatment? What do you need to know?
As with everything from resumes to screenplays, format is important. Not so much with treatments. They can be done in any combination of ways and at any length varying from three to twenty or more pages. Just remember that someone else has to read your treatment and if it’s bogged down with cumbersome detail, that will affect the reader’s mindset.
No matter how long it is, if the reader is interested and entertained the whole read, it’s a good treatment. While there isn’t a maximum, a single page of text might not convey all the emotion of your story and should be a comfortable length of three or so pages depending on the spacing.
But how should it look? Some people say it should be double spaced for easy reading and others say it should be almost in a loose script format so it can easily be adapted into the screenplay after completion. Either way, it should be easy and enjoyable to read.
I like a bullet point outline with detailed beats, but focused on the important actions and dialogue whereas my professor prefers to make a paragraph summarizing every scene change in order with script format “INT” and “EXT” when needed. If you try to use a format that is difficult for you to write, it’s going to be difficult to read. Do what is comfortable. Take what you can from online samples and change them where you think they should be adjusted.
If your story doesn’t have a working title, do you really know what it’s about? Sometimes it can take a long time of sitting and staring at a wall to come up with a good title and even then, it doesn’t feel right. But it’s a start. Some titles you get the moment the idea sparks in your head, but other times it’s a struggle. That’s okay. However, for your treatment, the reader needs to know what to call it.
Sci-Fi Story Version Four isn’t going to give your story the depth it needs to make it to the next level. Don’t slap a title on that you don’t like just because it’s all you got. Ask a friend to read the treatment and ask for their thoughts. If sharing at this young stage is out of the question, make a list of the emotions or sensations you wish your title to provoke and dive into a thesaurus. Or just build off it until something jumps out. Freewriting is usually my go to for any roadblock issue.
Name and Contact info
Obvious, perhaps, but when you present your treatment to a reader, you’re going to want to know the results. Without your name and contact information, nothing is going to go anywhere. Double check (because this really does happen!) that not only is your contact information correct, but it’s going to be correct in the next few months. These things don’t take just a week, especially if you’ve sent it into a contest.
There’s a lot of collaboration and discussion between readers and you need to make sure that you gave them your cell phone number, not your work phone number that might change with influx of staff or reassignment. Make sure your email is spelled correctly because a misplaced number or misspelling of “b3stwr1t3r” won’t be obvious to your reader when they send the “congrats your story was chosen” email.
When I worked for a script reading company, one of the things I was assigned to do was read the first sixteen pages of a screenplay and write the logline. Yes, only the first sixteen. If your story direction isn’t clear by the sixteenth page, you have a problem. Of course, that’s only an eighth of the way into a screenplay, but introducing the plot and main characters early on is important.
Your logline should also be a taste of what is to happen in your story, not a summary. Main characters should be mentioned, where they start in the story, what the plot is, and how it will affect them. You should be careful not to give too much detail or spoil the story. The logline should be a hook for anyone who is going to read your script. It should be enough to make the potential reader crave to know more.
It’s important to know your characters to write about their trials and how they would react. While character bios aren’t necessary for a treatment, having a short blurb for them doesn’t hurt either. Showing that you know your characters well is a great way of proving that your story is well-written. Nothing ruins a story more than shallow or unrealistically fluidic characters.
By creating a brief description and detailing your characters, your reader can perhaps get more information or background that didn’t show up in the treatment but can be used or referenced in the film. The more you explore your characters, the better chance you also have of writing a more in-depth story. After all, it is your character, not you, going through the trials and tribulations you’re designing.
The Five Ws
It’s very easy to skip over the basics and go straight to the meat of the story, but muscle and skin without bones is just a sad puddle. Before you start your outline, answer these five questions: Who are your characters? What is happening to them throughout the story? When is the story set? Where are your characters throughout the story? and Why are they going through this? You might be surprised when you hesitate at ‘why’. A good dive into your characters can result in a better understanding of why they’re going through this conflict. Of course, these Five Ws cover more than just those five questions.
What does your character hope to gain? When is your character’s moment of greatest weakness? Why do they have this weakness? These questions churn your story into something with depth whether you start with them or apply them a little while later. Make sure all of these questions and others that stem off of the Five Ws can be answered from your treatment alone.
While you don’t need a three act structure, if you do, it’s good to note when they begin and end. Act One sets the scene and dramatizes the main conflict. Everything should be introduced that is not a surprise for later in this act. Act Two should show how the conflicts revealed in the first act lead to the crisis. It should end right around where the protagonist is nearing the end of their conflict.
Act Three is the end of the main conflict and how it resolves. Not all stories need to follow this structure and there are dozens of different types of structures too, but as the writer, you should know where these specific points are. Map out the conflict and plot and make sure it moves at a realistic pace. Some rules, like Act One introducing all the main characters, location, and plot, is very important. If the audience is thirty minutes into a film and the character hasn’t faced a trial yet, it might be something you need you adjust.
Read and Share
There are treatments online from movies you’ve probably seen that you can read in preparation or read to compare. For instance Simply Scripts has more than just screenplays, they have collections of treatments too. You can also have a friend or colleague read over your work and give you critique. The less they know about film the better. They’ll easily tell you if they followed the storyline like a regular audience member or whether something confused them.
If they can’t understand it, it needs to be ironed out and fixed. There are also companies that can read your scripts and treatments for everything from spelling errors to pacing problems. They usually cost a bit, but if this is something you want to be the best it can be, letting other read with different perspectives and preferences can immensely improve your script.