How to Write a Treatment: The Basics of This Essential Screenwriting Tool
How to write a treatment should be on every Screenwriter’s list of capabilities. But why? And more importantly, what exactly is a film treatment again?
It’s a common—yet often unasked—question that many Writers have. Especially when “write a great script” are the go-to words of advice, how to write a treatment is a skill that frequently leaves Writers scratching their heads.
While having a stellar script should always be the priority, that doesn’t mean ignoring other materials that could both improve the outcome of the script and put it in a better position to be read by executives, Managers, Agents, and Producers. So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive into the world of writing treatments.
In our discussion of how to write a treatment, we’ll cover:
- What a treatment is
- Why treatments are necessary
- Mapping out the story
- Generating script interest
- Creating the treatment
What Is a Treatment?
Before we get to how to write a treatment, it’s crucial to understand what it is1. In fact, a treatment has a lot in common with a script. For one, the goal with each is to tell a story. Two, like a screenplay, a treatment is written in present tense.
However, a significant difference between scripts and treatments is that the latter is written in prose. That’s right! It’s more similar in format to a short story than a screenplay. So even if it has taken a Writer months or years to master the fine art of writing a script with all the unique elements that go along with it like scene headings, action lines, and dialogue, that pretty much goes out the door when writing a treatment. That being said, it’s still just as important to make sure the person reading the treatment receives strong introductions to each major character, as well as the significant plot points.
Why Are Treatments Necessary?
The task of how to write a treatment often comes with confusion and questions because some Writers don’t understand the why behind it. After all, if they have a solid script, what’s the point of a treatment?
Mapping Out the Story
First of all, a treatment can be an incredibly useful tool in assessing story.2 If a Writer can’t put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and describe the script’s characters and explain its story trajectory in prose form, odds are they won’t do much better in screenplay format. So in many regards, a treatment can be used as a training ground for making sure the story is structurally sound. In short, does it read well? Is it compelling? Unexpected? All these elements should be part of a strong treatment.
Screenwriter Heidi Hornbacher notes, “The biggest benefit of writing a treatment is that it’s essentially me creating a roadmap for the project. It helps me sort out all the details and it forces me to do background work that always proves valuable once I start writing drafts of the script. So it’s good for me. Then, because I’ve thought through all this stuff, it’s much easier to articulate my vision to others like Producers or people who might be able to help make the project happen… I can talk about the look and feel of the world, the tone, the themes, anything like that. So a treatment helps keep me on track and sort out my creative process. AND it helps me articulate the details of the project so I can get other key folks as excited as I am about it.”
But why can’t a Writer just use an outline to achieve the same objectives? The truth is that they can. Both a treatment and outline provide a more in-depth fleshing out of a script that likely will provide a clearer path to a great script in comparison to note cards or a beat sheet. But where a treatment might provide an advantage over an outline is again in story flow. An outline often is written out scene by scene, which can be incredibly helpful. But a treatment is a tool that essentially ties those scenes together and reveals whether they seamlessly move from one to the next.
Says Screenwriter Andrea Smith Peek, “Writing a treatment helps me figure out story and character choices in a more manageable, smaller format. In treatment form, it’s easier to see how the whole story comes together, solve potential story problems, and get a feel for the emotional arc of the story. Not to mention, it’s easier to make changes to a treatment compared to a full script. The best thing about writing a treatment is when I finally get to actual script pages the dialogue flows because I know my characters’ wants, plans, and obstacles.”
Generating Script Interest
Some Writers wonder about how to get that script into the hands of someone like an executive or agent. But they should also be asking themselves how to get that <em<treatment into their hands3. Because the truth is that some decision-makers may not want to read an entire script. Sure, they can—and often do—stop at the first 10 pages of a screenplay if they’re not connecting to the material, but that still leaves them without knowing the full story. So instead, some executives, Agents, Managers, and Producers might prefer to read a treatment.
In those cases, it typically won’t be a 50-page treatment that they’ll be wanting to read, which is why Writers should have on hand a version that’s about 10 pages or less. Of course, it’s possible that no one may ever ask for the treatment, but being prepared to provide one could mean the difference between getting an industry VIP willing to learn more about the story or simply saying, “No thanks.”
Another reason Writers should know how to write a treatment is so they’re ready to submit it for contests and fellowships. Especially over the last several years, competitions of all kinds have become a popular way for Screenwriters to get their work noticed. For some, all that’s required is the script itself. But for others, they mandate having a treatment of the story in addition to the screenplay. So having a treatment prepped ahead of time can mean a smoother submission experience.
How Does a Writer Go About Creating a Treatment?
Finally… How to write a treatment. Just like any other type of writing, it’s entirely possible that someone may simply want to take a seat at their computer and begin. But as with a screenplay, a little preparation never hurts.4
That’s why some Writers may decide to start with note cards, beat sheets or even an outline before writing their treatment. In the same vein, these tools can provide a useful roadmap as a Writer creates their treatment and make the overall process an easier one.
Also, these tools can actually help Writers focus on the “bigger picture.” Unless the intent of the treatment is for the Writer’s eyes only as they eventually make the leap to their script, it doesn’t necessarily need to have every minor character and side plot explained. As mentioned earlier, many times treatments are provided in lieu of a script so that the person on the receiving end can spend less time reading it. Therefore, having a concise list like a beat sheet or even a condensed outline can be a strength in making sure that the treatment sticks to only the major characters and significant story arcs within the three-act structure.
One disclaimer: Like a script, each new character who is introduced into the treatment should have their name capitalized at first mention. This lets the reader take note of their introduction and more easily track them in the story. Otherwise, Writers should craft the treatment in conventional prose form as if they are writing a story. Writers should also include the (eventual) script title and logline, as well as their contact information.
Once finished, the next steps follow a similar trajectory to a script. Some Writers may choose to put the treatment away for a few days or weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. Some may put it away for a while, make revisions and then send it out for feedback to a few trusted colleagues. There’s no one way to polish a treatment outside of recognizing that a first draft should never be the draft sent out for submission.
Screenwriter Steven Vivell emphasizes the importance of working and reworking a treatment, “You want the story you love the most… This means exploring and eliminating lots of options. You might waste your time writing a script that doesn’t have enough to sustain the story and characters. Then you’ll go back to the drawing board anyway. It’s better to do that preparatory work first and save yourself a lot of time and effort. Some Writers fear this because story plans or character biographies might feel technical and mundane, like writing an official report. But it’s an extremely creative and critical part of the process, and adopting a creative mindset for this may help. It’s also fun, because you can dream up anything without committing to anything (yet). Also, none of this is permanently set in stone. The treatment can and will change once you start writing the script. You must be open to change during the writing process, as you’ll discover new things you like, and some things you planned won’t work out.”
When it comes to treatments, “always be prepared” is a handy motto to keep in mind. Because every Screenwriter wants to put out the strongest script possible, and knowing how to write a treatment can help them towards that goal. At the end of the day, not only can a polished treatment support those efforts, but also—and perhaps more importantly—it can provide a Writer with confidence so that when opportunity knocks, they’ll be ready to open the door.
- 1McGrail, Lauren. "What Is a Film Treatment, and When Do You Need One?". Lights Film School. published: . retrieved on: 24 October 2019
- 2Grover, Micki. "What is a Film Treatment, and Why Do I Need One?". Writers Store. published: . retrieved on: 24 October 2019
- 3. "How to Write a Screenplay Treatment That Gets More Requests.". Script Reader Pro. published: 2 June 2015. retrieved on: 24 October 2019
- 4Hellerman, Jason. "How to Write a Treatment (with Film Treatment Examples". No Film School. published: 23 October 2018. retrieved on: 24 October 2019