The Power of a Film Treatment

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As some of you may know, I am more of a pantser than a plotter.

However, the more I write screenplays, the more I lean towards being a plotter. Or at least a middle ground of plantser – I make an outline and then expand on it in traditional pantser style.

In the film and television world, this outline is often considered to be the hallowed treatment (though an outline and a treatment can be different things – more on that in the next newsletter).

So, what is it, and why is it so powerful?

What is a Treatment?

A treatment is a document that presents the story idea for your film and is (usually) written before you actually write any of the script. They are usually written in present tense and narrative form and set out the most important information about your film. The core sections are:

  • Title
  • Logline
  • Story Summary
  • Character Descriptions

Why is it so Powerful?

The problem I always had with longer-form content (anything longer than a short film or story) is that I would often write myself into a dead-end or end up in a place I hadn’t thought of when I started. This “broke” the story in my mind and – often – it ended up discarded as an unfinished work.

When I began to outline, it became much easier to get from start to finish. Random and unconnected ideas found their way into a larger whole unexpectedly. The treatment helps me organise and structure the main points so I don’t end up in a  writing cul-de-sac and either have to begin all over again or get bogged down in a loop where I don’t want to forsake the writing I have done and try to force it to connect with other chunks of the story. This is the sunk cost fallacy at play.

I like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat methodology and loosely work my treatment around this. I usually start with a piece of the story – a scene or an extended sequence – and build out from there. I still get to pants but more easily build up a beat structure (to use Blake’s approach) for the film and can more easily fix logistical issues quickly. It’s also easy to review with non-screenwriters and if they like the overall idea it’s good to move to the next stage – the actual screenplay.

This isn’t an automatic process, even with the treatment, but it is easier. You don’t have to write linearly since you have the structure (the outline or treatment) already mapped out. When I am writing, new ideas creep in and sometimes make for better twists and improve the story. I write these in, then go back and edit the screenplay to accommodate this. It usually stays true to the treatment but can have nuances I had not considered until characters start talking and acting in the locations I put them in.

My process is something like this:

  • Write the general points of the story without much editing based on the Save the Cat beat sheet
  • Identify the characters – major and minor
  • Flesh out the characters with descriptions
  • Adjust the story as some things might now contradict what the characters have done in the scenes
  • Repeat the above until it feels consistent (not too many times)
  • Work out a logline and title (often I revise these later)
  • Flesh out the scenes in these beats versus the treatment
  • Write the screenplay!

Some Tips

Try to find a unique title that encapsulates the essence of your film. It’s best if it is different to other films out there.

Your logline is a brief sentence or two that captures the premise of your movie. It does not reveal the ending but should identify the protagonist and their challenge. A producer told me that it’s something you might say to a 15-year-old to encourage them to watch the film – i.e. simple language – such as “It’s a film about [protagonist] who has to face [challenge] in order to [achieve their goal].” It’s like a hook that makes you want to watch the film and there are various “templates” for the structure of the logline on the Internet.

A story summary expands on the logline to outline how the film plays out. It establishes the theme and tone and discusses any relevant background related to the concept of the story.

The character descriptions summarise the main characteristics and story arcs of the main characters. You do not need to outline secondary characters, but I like to add a line or two about everybody to be complete. Some writers (and more complex screenplays) opt for longer descriptions that can expand to a page or more for each. One of my stories has 1-3 page character outlines and goes into psychometric evaluations like Myers-Briggs!

You can also add an act-by-act breakdown that walks us through the story from start to finish as if you were explaining it to a bystander. This is the short story version of the film with the main points detailed. Remember to end by wrapping the story up – how it ends, what happens to the characters, what they learn, etc. – so it’s clear how it all concludes and what (if anything) might happen afterwards.

The story summary and act-by-act breakdown can be as short as 1 page or as long as 20, but 3-5 pages is more usual. If you are working on a more complex property such as a science fiction or fantasy piece and need lots of background information, you can add sections such as world-building, etc., and your treatment turns into a “bible” for the show. The two are different things.

Final Thoughts

Don’t get fixated on a process or a method. If you want to write, write!

I get ideas for scenes and I just write them straight into a screenplay. It may be short but then gets extended into a feature. For example, I had an idea for an action sequence in a bar, so I wrote it out. I then extended it as there was a larger story at play and got to 35+ pages of screenplay. I then realised that my opening scene was not the right place to start and I needed a new section before this. So, I went back to the beginning and wrote out a treatment so I get the structure and beats right and not spend too much time writing actual scenes that might never be used. My original opening is now in Act 2!

Writing is like any skill. Do it, and do it often and you will improve. As you learn new techniques along the way, apply these to your process and writing if they work for you. Ignore them if they don’t.

Additional Resources

If you want a detailed insight into the Save the Cat methodology, including a free beat sheet template, check out the article on StudioBinder.

And if you’re more into TV pilots, there is some great additional advice for your treatment in this Shore Script Article.

How to Write a Logline

This great video explains all you need to know!

This post was originally a special feature in my weekly newsletter. To get these before they get posted here (most are not cross-posted), plus tips, tricks and a dash of coaching sign up for my newsletter.

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By Edward

The Here & Now

I’m working on developing a feature film – a supernatural thriller. You can find more about this on my production website. I am doing a script readthrough at Pinewood later in March for a TV comedy pilot. Plus the usual audition rounds of course. And my IMDb StarMeter has improved by 30,000!