A TREATMENT may be defined as a prose narrative (five to twenty-five pages long) that presents the characters and events of a proposed script, movie or television series, and allows the reader to enter far enough into the drama to understand the ways in which the story and characters will be treated, including a vivid sense of the characters' and story's attitudes and the movement of the emotional energy and its relationship to what the story is about (theme).
Since most dramatic screen and television scripts can be broken down into an act structure (consisting of turning points or reversals), your treatment will focus not only on the major turning points of each act but also on the “smaller” turning points and reversals sequence by sequence, scene by scene and beat by beat. In other words, you’ll be writing a vivid and dramatic "short story" of the screenplay that will include the pivotal scenes, showing in more detail than a pitch, a sample of what we actually see and hear.
A quote from the film industry might be useful here: “No scene that doesn’t turn.”
If you find yourself summarizing a scene that’s undramatic, conveying only exposition or back story, chances are it’s unnecessary.
Deliver all the back-story and exposition of your story through present-time conflict...
And REMEMBER: Get your major character in trouble and then make it worse and worse. Only conflict is interesting. If you want drama - and who doesn't? - throw the weight of circumstance against your favored character. If you can’t figure out where to go next, make the main character’s struggles worse, then you’ll be back on track. And never stops asking yourself: what are the characters fighting for?
Write about what you know (your tribe or tribes), using some interesting expertise you already have— scuba diving, butterfly collecting, playing rugby, being in the Army, losing a parent, etc. — or write about what you don’t know, making yourself an expert in whatever subject you want to write about by first finding a way of getting yourself initiated into the tribe or tribes whose story you're interested in (this used to be called research, but the term is a bad one. If you define research as looking something up on the web, it's not enough.) If you’re writing a story about a fireman who almost perishes in the World Trade Center and you’ve never been to New York City, you may want to write about something closer to your own experience or take several trips to New York to interview firemen who survived the attacks of 9/11. Authenticity is everything.
Have the story's conflicts arise from character choice rather than cooked-up “plot points,” accidents or coincidences. (If you’re going to end your script with a man in a wheel chair and a puppy in his lap being run over by a train, set it up, and just keep in mind that such an ending is most appropriate for a comedy.) Likewise, resist the temptation to kill off your main character. It’s hard for a story to go on with a major character dead, unless you’re writing Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty all over again. The best approach is to force your major point- of-view character to make difficult, almost impossible, choices at each turn, especially wrong choices, and then let the consequences of those choices play out like dominoes falling.
A Few Practical Guidelines for the Writing the Treatment
As with your script, please follow these formatting guidelines carefully:
1.The FIRST TIME your CHARACTERS appear in the treatment, try to do all three things listed below in one sentence: Include their FIRST AND LAST NAMES IN CAPS:
CONSTANTINE GRUBER. (Don’t capitalize or use their full names again unless they enter then story much later and we need to be reminded who they are, like CURLY in Chinatown.)
2. Include the character’s age as a simple numeral set off by commas (JERROL BURBLE, 29, a hairy man with a mole in his eyebrow like a baby June bug . . .) A numeral (13) saves you and the reader time and space.
3. Include a brief but surprising description of the character:
- Don’t write a general description that gives your value judgments about the character (beautiful, ugly, cranky, goofy, racist); such adjectives tell and don’t show;
- Don’t write a boring all-points-bulletin (5’ 4” with brown eyes and hair); but instead
- Choose two or three significant details that give us a vivid picture of the character immediately: a pear-shaped man with a strawberry nose and a weepy, open sore on his leg. (This description, something like the one Chaucer uses in “The Cook’s Tale,” vividly shows the alcoholic cook in Canterbury Tales. The strawberry nose shows us he drinks too much and the open sore strikes us as grotesque and unsanitary, especially since the cook keeps picking at his sore while he cooks meals.)
- Here’s an example of a sentence that uses all three elements: “JOSEPHINE (JO) CRUPKI, 73, enters the living room in her granddaughter’s red miniskirt, wild-eyed, looking like a skeleton dipped in latex.” Hard to forget this description, right?
- Write scenes in specific places and times with clear transitions from scene to scene: “The next day,” “Two weeks later,” “After burying the body,” for example.
- Write only what we can see or hear. Don’t tell us character’s thoughts or motivations. Have the characters tell other characters what they’re thinking and reveal their motives through their dialogue and actions.
- Don’t write “we see” or “we hear.” Keep us out of the treatment and script altogether. If you write, “We see Jo pulling a revolver from her cleavage,” simply rewrite the sentence as, “Jo pulls a Colt 45 from her cleavage.”
- Every time a character makes or hears a sound, CAPITALIZE that SOUND: “Jo BLOWS out the television screen with a SHATTERING GUNSHOT.”
- Don’t write camera directions. We just want to see and hear the story as it unfolds dramatically like a film in our minds. The more vivid and brief the descriptions, the better.