An original draft treatment is the roadmap to a successful first draft as it’s the blueprint for the script. The treatment will serve as lifeline when you’re deep in the trenches trying to finish your script to meet a deadline. I’ve started a new script assignment job and just completed an extensive story treatment for the producers. As part of the step deal, I’ve been contracted to write the treatment, the screenplay and one rewrite. At this point the producers can let me go or ask me to do one more rewrite and then a polish if needed. It’s a basic step deal and as I write the screenplay, it provides a schedule and responsibilities on both sides. I’ve always worked from a treatment on all of my script assignment jobs. The producers need to know how the entire story unfolds and it ultimately helps the writer when it comes time to actually write the script. When you work from a solid treatment, you’ve already figured out most of the beats and arcs of the story.
An original draft treatment is generally long and detailed with dialogue and can range from one to fifty pages in length. My latest step outline is my most extensive to date at thirty pages. I’ve written scripts from treatments as little as two pages in length and some up to twelve pages. I’ve also worked on beat sheets, a less detailed outline that presents the major dramatic beats of the story and step outlines, a slightly more detailed version that focuses less on the details and more on the story. It’s basically a list of the scenes in order and gives an overview of the movie. A treatment is a tremendous guide to writing the script and filling the blank pages. It’s your road map to speed the process of writing because you’ve already worked out the aspects of story and character before you start pages.
The treatment itself usually goes through many rewrites before the producers lock it down. In a perfect world, everyone will be on the same page with regards to the story and tone of the script. Trust me, producers don’t enjoy discovering surprises after you deliver your draft.
A fellow screenwriter friend always tells me he doesn’t like to work from a detailed treatment because he feels it stifles his spontaneity as he writes pages. His method is using a loosely structured beat sheet and he fills in the blanks as he writes. Different writers use different methods, but I’ve never gone astray writing the script from my detailed treatment. It’s also a standard requirement by most producers and executives if they hire you to write on assignment. Sometimes a producer or executive only gives you a logline and it’s your job to return with a story treatment before they’ll allow you start the script.
I always find plenty of creative breathing room and spontaneity even when working from a detailed treatment. I still have to write the scene and let the characters interact, but I’ve already figured out the reason for the scene so it allows me to play within the story’s parameters and create ideas not listed in the treatment. I’ve always found so many good ideas spring from a solid foundation because it’s a creative framework and suddenly one idea begets another, and so on. Much easier to plan the script before you get into the middle and realize that you have missed so much.
A sold treatment helps considerably, but that doesn’t prevent a producer from changing his or her mind about story elements after you deliver the first draft. This happened to me once when I turned in an extensive treatment, the producer signed off on it, and then requested me to write the first draft. After I delivered the completed draft, they come back to me with twelve pages of notes, something I wanted to avoid because supposedly we all were on the same page with the treatment. I asked myself, “Could I have been that off target with my first draft?” It was shocking to receive such extensive notes and I felt like every decision they made about the treatment suddenly didn’t work for them after they read the script. It was as if you saw the blueprints and artist’s drawings of your house and then once it’s built, you decide the second story and pool were mistakes, “Go back and take them out.” Again, not every producer is adept at giving proper notes so be ready for an adventure every time out.
My situation caused me to endure an extensive rewrite on the first draft, something I hoped to avoid going in with my solid treatment. You never know what will happen once you deliver the first draft, but focus on what you can control —doing your best every time up to the keyboard.
Treatments, beat sheets and step outlines are an important process that prepare you to write the script. If you’re getting paid for a script assignment, it’s standard practice the producer or executive will ask you to create one of these structured documents before they’ll allow you to start the script. Writing an extensive treatment is similar to doing a pre-draft of your script. It gives you the chance to explore your story and get to know your characters before you set out on a journey of a hundred pages with them. If you embrace the treatment process and craft a solid framework for your story, it will help serve as your roadmap to a successful first draft.
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“I don’t think there are principles, other than asking yourself over and over again what’s going to happen next… and seeing if you’re interested in what’s going to happen next. I’m upset if what I think is going to happen next or I think should happen next, there’s something about it that doesn’t, I guess, ring true. That’s not quite real.”—Robert Towne
“Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing the story… designing story tests the maturity and insight of the writer, his knowledge of society, nature, and the human heart. Story demands both vivid imagination and powerful analytic thought.“—Robert McKee, “Story”
“Form does not mean “formula.” There is no screenplay-writing recipe that guarantees your cake will rise… You must master the principles of story composition. This craft is neither mechanics nor gimmicks… without craft the best the writer can do is snatch the first idea off the top of his head, then sit helpless in front of his own work, unable to answer the dreaded questions: Is it good? Or is it sewage? If sewage, what do I do?”—Robert McKee
“When you start a movie script, it’s like entering a dark room: You may find your way around all right, but you also may fall over a piece of furniture and break your neck. Some of us can see a little better than others in the dark, but there is no guaranteeing an audience’s reaction.”—Billy Wilder
“One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.”—Paul Shrader