The treatment debate: To write the story or not and how little is too little?

I can’t believe that I still find myself going through this discussion with beginning screenwriters who have not written long enough to realize how important structure and story are to the success of a first draft. They also don’t respect the fact that execution trumps any idea in a screenplay’s potential for success. There is no shortage of “good ideas” circulating Hollywood, but what’s usually lacking is the proper execution of the screenplay. Respect how important your script’s bigger story is and it will serve you well. You need the strongest foundation going into your script pages, otherwise you’ll be crafting a house of cards that is ready to collapse.

Rarely will a producer buy your poorly written screenplay because of the idea alone. You’ll need the full package to even get a shot at any level of success with your project. On a scale of one to ten, with one being the worst, is your first draft a 5?  A 7? How much work might it take to get it to an 9? That being said, I was lucky that my early screenwriting mentors drilled into my mind how vital is it to work on the story treatment as part of the process. This before I ever started to type one page of script. They were working screenwriters themselves at the time and knew the real world disciplines that lead them to their success.

script revision photo copyI’m working on the second draft of my new screenwriting assignment and executing notes from the producer and the executives from the production company. My contract stated that I needed to write a story treatment first and submit that to the producer, follow the notes and changes, and work on a handful of drafts to get it right. We all had to know exactly what story I was writing and everyone had to be on the same page. Once approved they allowed me to start the screenplay.  Trust me, they don’t want to be surprised when you turn in your first draft. Time is money and it will put everyone behind if the first draft needs months of work—especially with a production slate of films coming up this year and this script being one that will go into the pipeline sooner if it’s in great shape.

I completed the first draft script in 25 days and turned in my 105 page script early. It wasn’t impossible because I was working from my solid ten page story treatment. When you’re working on assignment jobs, producers will not allow you to start the script until the story treatment or step outline is completely fleshed out. This way, your screenwriting adventure will be a breeze as you have a solid road map to follow.

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. It’s varies in length and detail, sometimes with dialogue and can range from one to fifty pages in length. I once crafted a step outline that was my most extensive to date at thirty pages long. Everything in that document was in full detail and left nothing for anyone reading to wonder: “I don’t understand.” It was clearly planned out and solid. I’ve also written scripts from treatments as little as two pages in length and some up to fifteen pages.

corkI’ve 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.

As I’ve mentioned with my latest assignment adventure, 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. You also need to work out if the motivations track and the deep enriching character stuff before you begin any pages.

IMG_1767A 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. Usually he gets into trouble when he enters that barren wasteland called “ACT TWO” and has no idea how to get through those pages that will lead him into ACT THREE… good luck, my friend!

Different writers use different methods, but I’ve never gone astray writing the script from my detailed treatment. 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.

Treatments, beat sheets and step outlines are an important process that prepare you to write the script. If you’re getting paid as a professional writer for a script assignment, it’s standard practice the producer or executive will require you in the contract 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. It also helps you work out the pitfalls of your story and plan the surprises and twists in the structure. 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.

Keep writing and keep the faith! If you stop writing you’re guaranteed never have ANY shot at success.

@Scriptcat out!

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This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby

Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis

“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. I had a great, great editor, Hiram Haydn, who had many children and was a novelist. Toward the last years of his career, the only time he could write was Sunday morning. He would write four hours every Sunday morning. And he would get books done. It would take him years, but I think it’s crucial that we have some kind of rhythm. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman


8 thoughts on “The treatment debate: To write the story or not and how little is too little?

  1. I’d like to ask a question if I may? If you work from a treatment, beat sheet, what-have-you, during the writing process if you have a new idea do just ignore it? Or if you think it might be better do you make alterations? I’m having issues with a rewrite where I’ve had multiple ideas for the third act and I’m not sure when to just turn my brain off and just write.

    1. Oh, of course you ALWAYS have new ideas once you get into it, but the road map allows you a guide so you don’t stray from your story. No don’t ignore the new ideas, you can restructure an act, but I wouldn’t do it when you’re already into pages. See how it turns out and then go back and rewrite. Thanks for reading!

  2. I love writing the treatments. I find that it opens my creativity to different approaches to the story as well as locking it down. I try to write 2-3 rough treatments with different perspectives to see which I like most then I shine that one up. Great post 😀

  3. A good and timely post for me. I don’t like writing treatments as I don’t feel they represent my writing style and ability to show characters and dialogue as well as my screenplay. I haven’t been asked yet to write one for a producer but I have had to do them for grant applications. The first one I did was after I’d already done the screenplay (to get money for a rewrite). I thought it read OK but still wished they’d just asked for the actual screenplay itself. However, having said all that; I’ve just finished writing a 5 page treatment for another grant application, and this was a spur of the moment idea I have for a screenplay. I forced myself to come up with plot point after plot point and by the end I thought it was a pretty decent story. So I started on the screenplay and have been sailing through for the most part. I have come across plot holes though so my treatment wasn’t worked out enough I suppose. But I have to admit, with that treatment I am finding writing the screenplay a little less tedious and am excited I will have a first draft faster than usual. 🙂 And yes, I have felt comfortable adding new ideas into the script away from the treatment. Thanks for the article Mark. 🙂

    1. Ah, great to hear, Kristi. Yes, treatments make the first draft go much faster while you spend time writing actual pages instead of getting stalled on page 45 and trying to figure out your second act. You can eliminate plot holes by spending 3/4 of your time with the story of the script. It’s like a pre-draft and is your rock that you lean on when times get rough—and they will get rough! Also glad to hear you’re busy and creating product.

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