Treatments were once a tool for the writer to work out the concepts and beats of the story before spending weeks writing a screenplay. This saved time and made story and beat rewrites easier. It also allowed the writer to improve or tweak the story after meeting with producers, directors or key actors.
Today, treatments are a tool to sell the story and many times several versions are created to facilitate different meetings. For instance, a studio executive doesn’t have time to read more than a paragraph or possibly a single page, while a producer may desire the three-pager, or a director a 20-pager. The writer might even craft a 40+ pager for structural work before diving into the screenplay.
Regardless of the need for varying lengths, there are 12 steps needing to be addressed in creating a treatment:
STEP 1: Keep it brief. A concise writing style is needed to move the story quickly no matter what length is written. The key is to write in an easy to read style with common words, while clarifying key story elements. Only include the elements that highlight the story and avoid unnecessary details.
STEP 2: Show & Tell. Treatments must make it easy for the reader to “see” the story visually in their mind. It also must stimulate the reader’s emotions using the right pacing and word choice.
STEP 3: Test the Pitch. Sharing the story with friends is the best way to test the concept, visualization and emotional response of the listener/reader. This will allow the writer to tweak whatever parts of the story tend to lull and give him or her permission to drop those loved scenes that just don’t work.
STEP 4: Visually Appealing Presentation. The best treatment looks and reads as easily as a short story. It is written in narrative form using quotation marks for dialog (used sparingly) and avoids mention of any film terms or technical screenplay structure.
STEP 5: Dramatic & Emotionally Stimulating. The story must be filled with action, three-dimensional characters, and focused dialog – All designed to move the story forward. Detail should be limited and not delay the read.
STEP 6: Present Tense. The treatment must use present tense to place the reader in the scene as it happens, just like movies. Action verbs will enhance this sense of immediacy.
STEP 7: Hook & Tease. Hook the reader’s interest by making the story’s subject uniquely different than anything else seen. Tease the reader by raising questions in the reader’s mind, compelling them to seek the answers and finish the read.
STEP 8: Reveal Key Characters. The reader should understand the main characters, their attitudes and how the protagonist changes throughout the story. Also, the reader has a need to bond with the main character, so the treatment should provide a “Save the Cat” moment up front.
STEP 9: Clear Scene Structure. The structure of the paragraphs and the description of the settings must be in keeping with the style of the show and clarify scene and act breaks. It needs to be written concise enough as to not slow down the reader’s experience.
STEP 10: Key Scenes Only. The obligatory throughline scenes are important to include in the treatment and enough of the B-storyline to clarify the story’s theme. Plots C, D, or E are not typically addressed unless they overlap with the action plotline. For brevity, not all scenes from the action plotline will be included.
STEP 11: Turning Points. All turning points, cliffhangers, and other twists in the plot must be in the treatment. This is critical because each one propels the reader into the next act or scene, and sends the main character in a new direction.
STEP 12: Follow Media Treatment Rules. There are many prescribed treatment formats in the film and television industry, which should be used when required. However, there is one thing that nullifies this recommendation: A great treatment is great because its writer is an expert dramatist, which overrides everything else – Just entertain the reader at all costs.
The typical treatment length for a MOW (Movie of the Week) is 7-15 pages and is broken into 7 or 8 acts depending on the network. The length of a feature film treatment is 10-20 pages and broken into 3 acts. However, other lengths will be required for various meetings.