Issue 14: Lesson 14—Writing the Screenplay (Treatments)

This issue, we conclude our look at screenplay planning tools with the treatment. As you’ll see, writing a treatment is not for the fainthearted. However, it can be extremely useful in clarifying the tone and structure of your screen story…

What is it?

The treatment is basically a long telling of your screen story in the present tense. A treatment can be between 10 and 30 pages, or even longer.

Think of the treatment of as a synopsis/screenplay hybrid – all the excitement and colour of a screenplay written in prose.

You could even think of it as a piece of standalone fiction – your script in the form of a short story or novella. A famous example of this is The Third Man (1949). Screenwriter and author, Graham Greene, wrote his treatment in the form of a novella, which was then published in its own right.

A word of warning: At this stage, we’re looking at tools to help you complete your script, so you can write your treatment in your own way. Down the line, when you’re aiming to sell your script, you’ll be asked for specific documents by producers/agents etc. At this point, you’ll need to write to defined specifications. But that’s a concern for another day…

How to write a treatment

After all those months of research and planning, finally you get to let your creativity flow!

It may sound like the most useless advice ever, but start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end!

When writing the treatment, you need to think about how you want your story to look and feel on the screen. Feel free to shoehorn in some exposition and backstory, but the main idea is to give ‘readers’ the same experience as audiences will have when they see the finished film.

If you approach writing the treatment in this way, you’ll get the most out of the process. This is because you’ll start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. You’ll understand how well your story works on screen and the places in which it may need improving with:

* More action
* More conflict
* Better pacing
* Improved characterisation
* Clearer motivation and causation
* Logical and sequential events
* Stronger subplots
* A stronger central story
* More/less characters
* Better set-up of events
* A stronger resolution

This is an opportunity to tell your story in your way. Be honest with yourself, don’t be afraid to make changes along the way, and be prepared to start over (maybe more than once)…

Pros and cons of writing a treatment

The main advantage to writing a treatment as part of your planning process is that it presents the first real chance to tell your story in full. As you’ll discover, there are distinct formatting requirements for writing a screenplay. However, at this stage, you can simply write your story, putting in all those scenes you have sketched out, those cool lines of dialogue, and any other spark of creative genius that comes along. You get to fully ‘meet’ your characters and find out whether those set pieces and confrontational scenes really work on paper.

The treatment is also an opportunity to ‘hone the tone’ of your screenplay. Every story has a ‘voice’ – be it ‘warm and sentimental’, ‘gothic and eerie’, or ‘hip and cool’. Does Bridge of Spies read like The Revenant or The Big Short? Of course not. Each writer has developed a tone that suits them and the story they are writing. Think about the differences between fiction written by Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. The treatment is a good opportunity to find your voice and match it to your material.

Done right, a treatment provides a roadmap for you to constantly refer back to. It can act like a source document that helps you move forward with your script and assists you in developing the strongest possible screen story.

On the flip side, a treatment is a considerable undertaking. It consumes a lot of creative energy and, should your story change direction, could prove something of a time-suck for little gain. You could also argue that any opportunity for spontaneous creativity should be saved for the actual screenplay, not wasted at the planning stage – like an actor finding a moment of inspiration during rehearsal but being unable to recreate in when the cameras are rolling.

Ultimately, it comes down to you and the planning tools you find more helpful. However, if you’re hoping for a screenwriting career, it is important to develop your treatment-writing skills at some point so you’re prepared when asked to produce one for a producer or agent.


Here are a few resources that may help you write your treatment…

1. A useful general article on treatments, courtesy of Writer’s Store:

2. A PDF example of a true-life movie treatment:

3. Writer’s Digest weighs in on the screenplay planning tools:

4. Examples of treatments, courtesy of Simply Scripts:

5. Script Mag sets out the argument for not writing a treatment – as well as weighing on the treatment as it relates to fact-based films:

6. offers some advice on treatments and using them as a selling tool:

Final words of wisdom

As we bring our section on screenplay planning to a close, here are a final few points to guide you through the process:

– Remember that the more effort you put into planning, the easier the actual writing of the screenplay will be. If you make your mistakes now, you have the opportunity to change things and even start over without investing too much time and effort.

– Read lots of scripts in the genre you’re writing in (historical epic, romantic drama etc.). At this point, you need specific guidance, and seeing how other writers have handled similar stories to yours is a good way to learn.

– Remember that all the planning methods we’ve outlined are FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. This means you can tailor them to suit you. A good piece of general advice, however, is to start small. Work on defining your story in a sentence or two then build from there.

– If you get stuck, return to your source material. Ask yourself:

1. What’s the real story?
2. Who’s this story really about?
3. Why will audiences fall in love with this story?
4. Why am I so passionate about telling this story?

Next lesson, we start our look at all the various screenplay elements with a look at structure.

Lesson 15 is out on 29 February.