Have you ever wondered how to write a treatment? Before you get started, it is important to flesh out your reasons and goals behind writing the treatment. Once you’ve done that, then you can figure out which format is best suited for your needs. First, let’s take a look at what a treatment is.
First, what exactly is a treatment?
A treatment is a document that informs the reader about the story you are telling in your screenplay. Some writers use it as an outline to flesh out a story. Others use it to secure funding and support from producers, investors, and agents. Because there are numerous ways you can use a treatment, there are multiple formats you can use.
Because there are numerous ways you can use a treatment, there are multiple formats you can use.
Before you read any further, you need to consider why are you writing a treatment? Is the script already written or do you plan to use the treatment as an outline? Are you trying to solicit financing for a film? Have you been asked for a treatment and/or more information on your project? Your answer to any one of these questions will affect the approach and length of your treatment.
The big variable
If you surveyed some of the top screenwriters in the business, you’ll find that they each have unique ways in their approaches and uses of treatments. Translated, there is no singular “correct way” to write a treatment, but there are some general expectations as well as some common dos and don’ts. For example, treatments are always written in the present tense. Additionally, a 12pt font is recommended. Courier is always a good choice since it still is the standard font for screenplays.
Treatments vs. outlines: What’s the difference?
Don’t get confused by the semantics here. Some successful screenwriters, such as James Cameron, will compose a “treatment” that can be 40 pages in length or longer. Often, you will see writers do this to develop a story idea while also using this document as both an outline and a treatment for their script. On the other end of the spectrum, some screenwriters believe an outline is a document that specifically identifies and orders scenes, set pieces, plot points, and scene breaks. You can get a good sense of what we mean by looking at the “outlines” for “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” and “Big Fish”. In addition to an outline, you may also hear the term step sheet which is a document that contains all the scenes in a screenplay.
The parts of a treatment
A “one-pager” is probably one of the common, most requested treatments in the industry for attracting initial support for your project. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a short story, a feature film, a web series, a documentary or a TV show, a one-pager is a quick pitch or mini treatment. Think of it as your one-page sales ad to get money for your film. A one-pager typically contains these three essential elements and in this order: title, logline, and synopsis. Let’s take a look at these elements.
Producers really like “high concept” titles, which are movie names that inform the audience about the general idea of the film without having to read the logline. High concept films can be in any genre. Examples are film names like “Toy Story,” “Fight Club,” “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Alien,” “1917,” and “Unfriended.”
Tell your story in one or two sentences. Keep it concise and entertaining. The logline of your story may be the only information a producer ever sees, so you want it to jump off the page.
The synopsis is the meat of your treatment where you have the opportunity to expand your story beyond the logline. The tone of your synopsis should match the genre of your script. Don’t write a book report; instead, create a captivating short story. For example, if you’re pitching a comedy, your story should be funny; if it’s a thriller, it should be suspenseful. Like any story, your synopsis should include a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s right; you need to include the ending of your story. Don’t be coy and think that withholding this information will increase the likelihood that a producer will want to read your screenplay. They are all too familiar with a great script concept that has a lousy ending. Entice them by ending your story with a bang to create an optimal impact.
One pager synopsis
For a one-pager, reduce your synopsis to three paragraphs, one for each act of your story. Some writers do manage to squeeze in a sentence or two to describe the setting if they have space. For documentaries, provide a synopsis of how you see your story unfold on the screen. As always, you should wow producers and reveal your fantastic ending, even if the ending changes during production. A one-pager synopsis for a TV show can be trickier. Try to give the overall flavor of the show in a paragraph or two and bullet point a few sample episodes which include the title and logline for each. Some TV writers will cheat and use the front and back of a page in order to fit enough information.
This is where the variability in a treatment really occurs. Longer treatments have no set page length. Personally, I believe that the correct length is what you need to clearly convey your ideas to achieve your targeted goal for the usage of the treatment. Additionally, the format varies.
Many writers use a simple but very effective treatment format that includes your names, title, and synopsis. In this case, you will want to approach your synopsis as a very engaging, abbreviated version of your story, where you organically integrate important details such as your settings and characters. Some writers divide sections of their synopsis with catchy headings similar to chapters in a book; others note act breaks. Other variables include using set pieces and snippets of dialogue to set the tone of your story. Include your major plot points while trying to avoid film lingo. Mentioning camera shots or writer’s jargon like “spine” or “turning point” can pull the reader out of your story.
Some writers follow a structure similar to a one-pager starting with the title and logline. Following that, they will include a “Characters” section that delves into the background and motivations of the leads. If your film is a biopic, it’s a great place to share significant information about the real person your film is based upon. Similarly, for a documentary, you might include a section titled “Subjects” that describes who you plan to interview and how they relate to your story.
Other element headings may include a “Settings” section which describes your story’s universe. This can be especially helpful if you have a sci-fi or fantasy world; historically based films also benefit from these descriptions. If you’re creating an in-depth treatment for a web series or TV show, you might also want to include a section called “Episodes”. You would place this after a longer synopsis. Here you would include several sample ideas of weekly installments by listing the title and a logline for each episode. After the synopsis, some writers also include “Theme” which describes just that.
Don’t forget your name
At the end of your treatment, put your name and contact information. This is the most personal information you will include in your treatment, but it’s not the place to brag about your prior successes at film festivals or the popularity of your YouTube videos. Save that sales pitch for your query letter.
Earlier, we posed the question, “Why are you writing this treatment?” Know that answer. It’s the key to creating a treatment that matches your purpose thereby delivering the greatest success.