“A treatment is never a substitute for a screenplay.”
If you got into screenwriting thinking that all you’d need to do was write a screenplay, you’ll soon discover that that’s just not the case. There are a great many other pieces of the professional screenwriting puzzle, including the pre-writing process; working with agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers; and of course, the focus of our discussion today – the treatment.
Many new screenwriters assume that it’s necessary to write a treatment for each and every project they touch. Yes, there are times when you should and will write a treatment, but there are also times when it’s actually not necessary. For example, do you have to write a treatment before you can start writing your spec script? Nope! You can if you want to, but you don’t need to.
First things first. What precisely is a treatment? Let’s pin down a definition so that we’re on the same page.
In its simplest form, a treatment is a prose-based telling of your screenplay. You might think of it as a “novelized” version. Instead of writing in traditional screenplay format, you’re relaying the narrative as a sort of short story or novel.
So, rather than saying:
Sarah stands at the sink; no one else is in the room. She washes beets, and their purple juice flows down the drain. She’s sobbing.
Why did you do this to me?
In a treatment, we might say:
Sarah stands at the sink; no one else is in the room. She washes beets, and their purple juice flows down the drain. She’s sobbing. Out loud, to no one in particular, she asks, “Why did you do this to me?”
Treatments are used primarily as a way to communicate – before the screenplay is written – what a screenplay will be about, and what will happen within it. It’s thought of as a form of prewriting. Rarely would you write the full screenplay and then follow up with a treatment summarizing everything. More commonly, the treatment is written to distill and convey the writer’s intentions. That’s not to say that it never happens the other way around, but “treatment first” tends to be the most common approach.
Treatments are a tool of the trade in some arenas of the screenwriting business. For example, let’s imagine that a producer has hired a screenwriter to develop a screenplay based on a “presold concept”; that is, on an existing property such as a novel, comic book, or someone’s life story. Or perhaps they’re hiring a screenwriter to rewrite an existing screenplay. In this case, the producer likely would use a treatment as a way to vet the screenwriter’s vision for the script and ensure that it aligns with the producer’s vision. In this context, you can think of a treatment as a written, somewhat long-winded pitch.
How long should a treatment be?
There really isn’t much consensus around how long a treatment should be. That’s because treatments are used for different things by different people.
Screenwriter John August discusses this lack of consensus. When trying to figure out how long to make your treatment, he recommends that you identify what the treatment will be used for and what the expectations are.
August was asked:
“I am currently writing my first feature length screenplay and have been asked to send in a treatment to a production company. What is the standard form for a treatment (how many pages, etc.)? I have trawled the Internet to no avail.”
There is no standard. Ask the production company what they mean by a treatment, and they’ll probably tell you what they’re looking for in terms of pages. They may even send a sample.
For example, my assistant Dana is currently writing a treatment for a production company. The treatment will end up being 15-20 pages, single spaced. To me, that’s at the long end of a treatment, but that’s what the company wanted.
A treatment of any length generally describes all of the major scenes or sequences in the movie in prose form, but doesn’t get into specific dialogue. From a treatment, a reader should be able to get a good sense of the movie’s plot, but not necessarily its special flavor.
A treatment is never a substitute for a screenplay.
Meanwhile, in “Screenplay Treatments 101”, professor Marilyn Horowitz shares:
“There seem to be three accepted versions of a treatment. One version is a one-page written pitch. The second version is a three to five-page document that tells the whole story, focusing on the highlights. The third version is a lengthy document – some say up to 60 pages – providing an elaborate, scene-by- scene breakdown of a script.”
60 pages is elaborate, but it allows the writer to really dig into what the screenplay will be like once it’s written. Writer and director James Cameron is famous for writing long treatments. His treatment for The Terminator is worth a read!
Are there other similar documents?
Yes! A screenwriter may be asked to create other documents which, like the treatment, express the intended direction for the script. Such documents include an “outline” and a “beat sheet.”
These are often the same thing, John August shares, and what distinguishes them from a treatment is that they’re more a list than a flowing, novel-esque bit of prose. Sometimes a producer asks for an outline when what they really want is a treatment.
“To me, an outline tends to be less prose-y and feature more bullet points, but there is no common consensus in Hollywood about what’s what. In features, we use ‘treatment’ and ‘outline’ and ‘beat sheet’ interchangeably.
A ‘write-up’ is generally a written version of something you’ve pitched. It could be long or short. A ‘leave-behind’ is a written summary of a pitch that you literally leave behind after the meeting.”
Above all, it’s best to follow August’s advice: get a clear understanding of what the person requesting the document wants and expects so that you can deliver accordingly.
What about when someone isn’t asking for a treatment?
Some screenwriters feel that creating a treatment is something that they have to do when writing a screenplay. In truth, unless someone asks you for one, you probably don’t need to create a treatment.
Many screenwriters, especially those new to the game, are developing “spec scripts”. A spec script is a script that’s written on the “speculation” (thus putting the “spec” in “spec script”) that someone will want to buy it at a future date, after it’s written. A screenwriter developing a spec script is essentially working for him or herself. He or she has had a good idea and decided to dedicate the time to translating it to the page.
As a part of developing their spec script, a screenwriter may engage in different prewriting techniques to help them get their writerly brains around the characters they’re creating and the story they want to tell. It certainly can be beneficial to work out the beats and overall trajectory of a screenplay before actually sitting down to write it, no doubt. But is there a requirement to do that in the form of a prose-based treatment? Unless someone who is paying you to write has asked you for one, absolutely not!
Different analysts and consultants have different ideas about the pros and cons of writing a treatment when no one has asked you to. For Horowitz, it can be a good idea:
“Part of succeeding as a screenwriter is to write at least one great screenplay. There is no substitute for craft, but screenplays are hard work and take time to perfect, so if a writer has already completed one screenplay, doing a treatment for the next can help determine whether or not the new screenplay is viable. Why? Because the treatment creates distance. Distance allows the screenwriter to get an overview of his or her work and look at it objectively.
If the basic story is not something an audience wants to see, no amount of rewriting can fix it. This is a problem I encounter over and over in my work as a writing coach. Screenwriters often forget that they are writing for an audience. Writing a treatment before you start your next screenplay can help you work out problems and determine whether your story idea is a diamond in the rough, or just a lump of coal. The goal is to combine stories told from the heart with a deep understanding of what other people want to see.”
Meanwhile, Staton Rabin thinks writers should stay away from treatments at all costs:
“There’s really never any compelling reason why you would want to write a film treatment if your spec script is not under contract, or you weren’t hired to write or rewrite a script. Unless it’s Spielberg (or someone like him) doing the asking, I wouldn’t write or rewrite for anyone for free. And make no mistake: writing a film treatment is hard work.
Keep in mind that after carefully planning every aspect of your plot, if you also write (for example) a 30-page film treatment, you can easily ‘burn out’ all your creative energy on that treatment before even beginning to write your screenplay. Writers need a sense of discovery when writing their scripts, so that they can remain fully engaged in the process. Certainly, you’ll want to plan your plot very carefully before beginning to write your screenplay – but not to such an extent that you are ‘writing by rote,’ and are no longer open to the happy accidents that can happen along the way.
It also should be noted that it’s extremely unlikely that you, as an ‘unproduced’ screenwriter, will sell a script based on a treatment alone. Hardly ever do film producers buy treatments from unknown screenwriters when no script has been written yet. If you are not already established as a successful screenwriter and want to sell your movie idea, you will probably have to write a spec script.”
When it comes to deciding whether or not you should write a treatment for a spec script, ultimately I feel that both Horowitz and Rabin make valid points. A treatment can help you get organized and find some perspective. But on the other hand, particularly when writing a spec script with little to no oversight, it can be challenging to keep motivated, and the danger of burnout is real.
If you’re feeling especially burdened by writing a treatment, it may not be the best use of your time, although Horowitz may argue that the resistance you’re experiencing could be indicative of a fundamental problem in the screenplay. If you can’t get excited about the treatment, maybe the idea needs some serious rethinking, and it’s time to reorient.
In a work-for-hire situation, the whole picture is different. The treatment is often an integral part of the process and an extremely useful communication tool. It’s a way for you to show the producers what you’ve got. In this case – because you have a boss overseeing the process, and because the treatment is a step toward what likely will be some sort of collaboration – developing a treatment can set you up for a less frustrating experience writing the screenplay itself. If you work out all of the kinks beforehand, you may face less resistance on the actual page.
That said, some screenwriters in the work-for-hire world find the whole treatment process immensely frustrating. Here’s Terry Rosio, one of the Pirates of the Caribbean writers as well as Shrek and Aladdin:
“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.”
Yikes! But hey, it could be worse. At least Hollywood producers don’t resort to more… Elizabethan methods:
It may not be so intense for everyone, even with the financial pressures of the studio level. But especially as Rosio continues and explains why the process can be so frustrating, he’s telling us something important, which we’ve already touched on here:
Writing for hire is not the same as writing a spec script.
By its very nature, writing for hire means that you are working in a more collaborative atmosphere from the start. It’s different to get notes on a screenplay you’ve already written than it is to get preemptive notes on a screenplay you haven’t had a chance to write yet.
In this respect, it can be helpful to think of the treatment as its own project. Ultimately, it will provide a roadmap to writing a screenplay that has a shape all parties have agreed to beforehand.
Of course, that’s not to say the producer or studio won’t have notes on the screenplay itself! Chances are, they will. But still, getting some of the confusion out of the way at the treatment stage can save you from heartache down the road.
So, what do you think? Have you ever written a treatment for a spec script? Did it help you? What about in a work-for-hire situation, for a producer or studio? Did you find a treatment to be a useful communication tool? We’d love to hear about your experiences and field any questions you may have in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
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