How to write a proper film treatment!
Good advice from Terry Rossio below. Wanted to pass it along. It comes with some good sample treatments!
by Terry Rossio
There is no way to write an effective treatment… yet there are effective techniques that should be used to write them.
Some things just make no sense. This is especially true if you work in Hollywood. No other business provides so many opportunities for the double-take, the jaw-drop, the stunned-into-silence look of disbelief. As your resolute reporter, it’s often my task to provide descriptions of utterly senseless behavior.
It’s tricky. Because to describe, one must first understand. Yet it is the nature of the senseless that no understanding can be reached, no clarity achieved. Still, I continue on, churning out words, trudging through the nonsense…
And so we come to the subject of treatments.
Writing treatments in Hollywood.
And already, we’re lost.
I would like to tell you that up is down, right is wrong, good is bad, long is short – but I can’t, because that stuff makes sense.
I’m tempted to say, ‘Writing treatments is like designing a film by hiring six million monkeys to tear out pages of an encyclopedia, then you put the pages through a paper-shredder, randomly grab whatever intact lines are left, sing them in Italian to a Spanish deaf-mute, and then make story decisions with the guy via conference call.’ But no… compared to writing treatments, that makes sense, too.
There is no understanding. Only truth. And here’s the big one:
You will write reams of treatments in your stay in Hollywood. And not a single word of any of them will be of any value to anyone. And still, you’ll have to do them anyway.
I know that doesn’t make sense. It never will. As I said, these days, short of understanding, we just go for truth.
So here’s another:
There is no way to write an effective treatment… yet there are effective techniques that should be used to write them.
Nonsense, again, I know. But I suppose we ought to take a stab at this one. Why can’t an effective treatment be written? Six reasons spring to mind:
1. Your treatment won’t get read.
Bad enough that an executive will take a meeting having not read the script, or having only skimmed the coverage. You would think that a seven-page treatment wouldn’t be too much of a time imposition. But it will happen… as you endure a meeting where basic story points are not generally known, it suddenly hits you – they didn’t read what you sent them. Insult to injury: this does not mean that the very same executive who didn’t read the first treatment will be at all shy about asking you to write another.
2. Your treatment will be misinterpreted.
Often the biggest problem with a script is simply that it is not yet a movie. The screenplay is hard enough – after all, you’re expected to convey an experience that will eventually be created by hundreds of technicians, with spectacular effects, using trained actors and musicians, with the advantage of exciting locations and the professionalism that comes with tens of millions of dollars spent – all with just a few black squiggles on white paper. It takes an imaginative, thoughtful reader to visualize a finished film from a screenplay – that’s a rare ability right there. To go one step removed again and try to get the same effect from a treatment – oh, brother. That opens up even more room for misinterpretation – and where there’s room for misinterpretation, a vacuum will rush in (or something like that).
3. Your treatment will be considered incomplete.
This one comes with a money-back guarantee. The main notes you’ll receive on your treatment will reflect concern over the elements that aren’t there.
If you focused on character, the plot will be deemed 'unclear.’ If you focused on plot, the characterizations will be considered 'thin.’ If you managed to get both character and story in there, there will be complaints about tone, or a lack of clear theme. (Remember, you’ve only got about seven pages.) If you try to include every little detail, you’ll end up writing a twenty-page treatment that will be considered 'dense,’ 'in need of simplification’ and 'lacking in clever dialog, acting and cinematography.’
4. Your treatment will be taken literally.
So they get the treatment, and panic sets in. This is the movie that they’re going to make and release? Oh, no! You can talk to them all you like about 'filling out the story’ in the writing and 'finding better solutions’ as you move ahead and that much of it is 'placeholder in nature.’ But when an exec sees something written down, they react like it’s carved in stone. (Until it comes times to give their notes, of course.)
Often the treatment becomes a way to present your best ideas in the poorest possible forum. You give away all your reveals, your best plot turns, all of your surprises. It’s a chance for them to say 'no’ to solutions not because they’re bad, but because they’re not fully developed. To write a treatment is often an exercise in outlining the stuff that won’t ever be in the movie. Do enough treatments, and there will be nothing left for you to write, because everything you like, all your first instincts, will be put off-limits.
5. Your treatment will become a political weapon, and the writing process will be delayed.
Of course, all this wrangling over the story takes time. They will insist to you that they need the treatment because of imminent deadlines and terrible time constraints – “Just let us see where you’re headed.” They’ll always promise to not respond, but that promise goes out the window the minute they read it and all of a sudden “have some concerns.” So you find yourself attending more meetings over what the next treatment will be. Which, of course, will delay the writing, delay the movie, and make it all the more imperative that the next treatment be done as quickly as possible, and the cycle begins anew.
(As an aside, this is exactly similar to a writer turning in 'pages.’ Producers always say, “When can we see pages?” But if you give them the first part of the script, guess what, you’ll be having a meeting to 'fix’ that stuff before the rest of it is ever done.)
The worst version of the treatment delay effect comes when there are a number of producers and development execs involved, and they can’t agree on the story amongst themselves. The treatment gives them a nearly irresistible opportunity to meddle – and to jockey for position. The treatment – along with the writer – becomes a ping-pong ball, bouncing around until all the most plausible story solutions have rendered politically unacceptable by some camp. Meanwhile, the writer’s enthusiasm is drained.
It does happen. Working on the animated feature ANTZ, co-screenwriter Todd Alcott executed and submitted 28 different treatments for the studio over a period of months. They would have kept asking for more, until the executive, Nina Jacobson, put a stop to it, and simply demanded that the writer be allowed to write.
6. Your treatment will be understood, and approved.
So how is this a problem? It’s not, really – until you turn in the screenplay, and they react with total shock to what you’ve done with the story. Oh, it happens to follow the treatment exactly, of course, but you’re not allowed to point that out to them. And that’s the moment when you realize all the treatment writing was a real waste of time.
By the way, did we mention that you don’t get paid for treatments? There are a few deals that pay a step upon turning in a treatment, but those are rare in the feature world.
Gee, I guess you can tell we don’t like writing treatments. So why write them?
Because they ask.
And while the treatments themselves might not have much value, there is value in the act of writing them. It’s all about reassurance. And building a relationship with the executive. They’re in a tough place – having to gamble on a writer, and waiting months to see if the gamble pays off. A treatment gives them some bit of hope, a scrap of paper to put into their file, something tangible to hold onto.
And I suppose treatments do offer some small insurance, to all involved – if the writer is way, way off, it’s probably better to know that sooner than later. In theory, the best case scenario, a treatment can allow you to 'skip a draft’ and fix story problems without having to execute them in detailed screenplay form.
In theory, the best case scenario, a treatment can allow you to 'skip a draft’ and fix story problems without having to execute them in detailed screenplay form.
So let’s pretend you’re going to write a treatment, and pretend it will have some usefulness. And heck, no matter what, it’s still a piece of writing with your name on it, so you’re gonna want to do it as best as you can.
We’ll start with definitions. (Keep in mind television has its own standards – we’re just talking film here.) These are my definitions, completely arbitrary, of course, but of course absolutely correct:
A premise is an idea for a story; the set-up or situation, with little or no story implied. Rarely written down to be presented.
A log-line is a bit more full. Written in one or two lines, you get the central situation, almost always a main character, a sense of tone, and an idea of where the story leads. Example:
“A studio reader pulls a flawless spec script from the slushpile – submitted by Shakespeare. She communicates with the idealistic Bard by e-mail as the script is shredded by the Hollywood studio system, and falls in love along the way.”
The log-line is the sort of thing you’d put in a query letter; enough to intrigue, with the promise of more, and a sense of completeness. (Beware; a premise passed off as a log line is really just a bad log line.)
A beat outline is a sparsely-written list of scenes or events. Useful for production draft work, it’s a quick way to visualize chunks of story, follow story logic, make changes, etc.
A synopsis can be one long paragraph, or several paragraphs; probably no more than a page-and-a-half in length; usually less, usually focused on plot. It’s often a concise distillation of a story that exists in longer form, such as the synopsis of a script found in a coverage.
An outline or story outline is sometimes used interchangeably with synopsis – but in fact they’re almost always a bit longer, with more detail, more emphasis on character, tone, and theme, and not solely plot-driven.
And finally, a treatment is a full exploration of a story. Covers character, plot, setting, theme; clarifies the intent of the writer. Can contain character descriptions, a synopsis, or statements on theme and tone. Attempts to convey the filmgoing experience through to the story’s end; may use bits of key dialog. Usually more than three pages; average is seven to twelve. My personal feeling is that when a treatment goes past 30 pages (and some can be 80 or more, and include sections of screenplay) a writer might just as well show the finished script. By design, I think, a treatment should be less detailed to read and write than the script, or what’s the point? (This is a presentation note only – I think it’s a fine technique as a writer to simply let the treatment keep building until suddenly you have a script on your hands.)
Now, rather than make a list of margin sizes, font types, and layout designs, we’re going to show by example. What we’ve done is cracked open the trunk, rummaged a bit, pulled out and dusted off three treatments from our past. These are, for the most part, early stabs at trying to lock down a story assignment. Each was written to a slightly different purpose, so each has a different layout, style, tone, etc. And we’ll try to throw in a few tips along the way.
TIP #1: USE HEADINGS
PROJECT: GODZILLA [17k]
Here’s a trick: when you write out your story, use headings, like the chapter headings in a novel. This lets the executives skim – they can read the story just by reading the headings, and skip the details: GODZILLA ON THE MOVE and GODZILLA CAPTURED are hard to misinterpret.
This particular 'treatment’ is more of an outline, by design. It’s a 'leave behind’ document, the kind of thing you’d give the executive after a pitch. The headings correspond somewhat to the card headings on the pitch board. And it’s written in shorthand form – enough to be clear, to jog the memory, clear enough to claim the ideas you’ve presented in the pitch, but not so complete that you feel you have the full story by reading it alone. (For that, you have to invite the writers back. Hee, hee.)
TIP #2: DIVIDE IT UP
PROJECT: SINBAD [44k]
This is perhaps our most common format. We divide up the treatment into sections – concept, characterization, theme, tone, and story. This lets you put a spin on the story – basically, talk intent, talk about what’s cool about your approach. And it lets you fill up the treatment with stuff that executives can confidently not read.
As far as we know, this SINBAD project has never proceeded past the screenplay stage. Reportedly it’s still in development at Disney.
TIP #3: USE PROSE STYLE
PROJECT: THE MASK OF ZORRO [45k]
We used to think studios wanted to see the behind-the-scenes, the story infrastructure, the secrets to the screenwriting trade. They don’t. They want to be entertained, and they expect the treatment to do it.
One way to pull this off is to write in a prose style, try to offer a reading experience that tracks the emotions and feelings of the film-going experience. That’s what we tried to do here – just write the story, no interrruptions, no spin, no embellishments. Keep the length down and the pace up by using a sort of shorthand prose style.
For the record, “Palatino” is our favorite 'treatment’ font – it’s somewhat formal, but still friendly (it also may be a Mac-only font). Here we tried to make the writing seem more 'workmanlike’ and submitted the treatment in “Courier” (but we did go wild with the little section-division “Zapf Dingbats” Xs; we were trying to look old fashioned and flamboyant).
Interesting story note – this incarnation of the ZORRO story has the 'Diego betrayal’ solution. The problem that Diego has in the film is for Elena to learn the truth of her parentage. This version has a dueña who knows the truth as well as Montero. Diego takes advantage of the romance between Alejandro and Elena, and gets Alejandro to claim to be Diego’s son. This would make Alejandro and Elena brother and sister – which motivates Elena’s dueña to tell her the truth, that Diego is her father, in an attempt to end the romance… which is exactly what Diego planned. This was dubbed by Spielberg to be a 'Rube Goldbergian plot device’ and was subsequently scrapped. What should have gone in its place was Diego taking the map and blackmailing Montero to tell the truth, though that never quite made it into the movie.
We’ll end with one final tip: If it’s at all possible, try to proceed to the screenplay without writing a treatment at all.
Ted came up with how to do it. When they ask you to write a treatment, what you say is, “Sure, but… we’re not quite certain of the format, exactly what you want to see… could you send us an example of a treatment you liked?”
This is a beautiful thing, because either they’ll have to admit they’ve never seen a treatment they liked – in which case, why should we be writing one? – or they’ll answer, “We’ll check our files.”
Forced, then, to confront their own nonsense, they’ll never get back to you on it, and pretty soon you’re commenced, and on your way doing what you should do, which is writing your screenplay. (Hee hee – picture Bugs Bunny, crunching into a carrot, looking into the camera – “I’m suuuch a stinker!”)