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How To Write A Treatment

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Writing a treatment is a skill that can help any screenwriter succeed, at any point in the creative process.

There are at least three parts of getting a screenplay sold or financed. Learning to write a treatment can jumpstart a writer's career because it allows a screenwriter to communicate his or her screenplay idea in a brief but compelling way. It also can be a powerful diagnostic and creative tool.

I am often asked if a writer has to actually write a screenplay, or can they just sell ideas?

You can't copyright an idea, only the execution. If you have a great idea, the only way to own it is to write it. Writing a treatment is a fast way to test out an idea before the screenwriter commits to writing a script. If it isn't terrific, move on.

Part of of succeeding as a screenwriter is to write at least one great screenplay. There is no substitute for craft. Screenplays are hard work and take time to perfect. If a writer has completed a screenplay, writing a treatment can help the writer determine whether or not their screenplay is viable, because the treatment creates distance. This allows the screenwriter to get an overview of their work and look at it objectively.

If the basic story is not something an audience will want 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 write 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.

Craft and good ideas don't necessarily go together. I have worked on several scripts with great ideas and poor execution and the reverse. The successful screenwriter must be able to master both aspects. One tip: Always remember that a screenplay, unlike a novel, is not a complete form in itself but a step along the path of making a film, so the goal of any screenwriter is to see the film made of his or her screenplay. It's easy to forget the goal when you are wrestling with your script.

Ideally, every serious screenwriter should have two really well written, well-structured screenplays as writing samples. Then it makes sense to devote time to learning how to write treatments because they force the writer to focus on structure and character development. Once the writer gains a comfort level with this type of rigorous story development, years of struggling can be saved, If the writer can attain writing excellence in his or her full length scripts, and can write treatments with his or her intended audience in mind, success must be inevitable The key is this: If the scriptwriter wants to see the movie of the treatment he or she writes, then so will other people.

Writing a treatment helps a screenwriter assess his or her work wherever they are in their process. I cannot recommend this process enough.

What Is a Treatment?

There is controversy about the length a treatment can be. Some say up to 60 pages, but the point of the treatment is to communicate your story as quickly as possible, so brevity without sacrificing juice is the key here.

There seem to be three opinions about what a treatment is.

One opinion is that it is a one page written pitch. The second, which I agree with, is that it is a two to five page document that tells the whole story focusing on the highlights. The third opinion is that a treatment is a lengthy document that is a scene by scene breakdown of a script. I consider this an outline, and a waste of time as a marketing document, though it can be an important step in the creation process In my experience, the two to five page version works best, and an example is included in this article.

How To Write a Treatment

This two to five page document should read like a short story and be written in the present tense. It should present the entire story including the ending, and use some key scenes and dialogue from the screenplay it is based on.

What Should Be in the Treatment?

  1. A Working title
  2. The writer's name and contact information
  3. WGA Registration number
  4. A short logline
  5. Introduction to key characters
  6. Who, what, when, why and where.
  7. Act 1 in one to three paragraphs. Set the scene, dramatize the main conflicts.
  8. Act 2 in two to six paragraphs. Should dramatize how the conflicts introduced in Act 1 lead to a crisis.
  9. Act 3 in one to three paragraphs. Dramatize the final conflict and resolution.

The Three Act Structure

Any discussion of treatment writing should at least touch on basic screenplay structure. Although everyone reading this article is probably familiar with this information, revisiting the basics can be helpful.

In his seminal book of fragments, The Poetics, Aristotle suggested that all stories should have a beginning, middle, and an end. The writing method I have developed uses the expressions Setup, Conflict and Resolution as more evocative terms for describing the movements of a screenplay.

Breaking the movement of a story into three parts, gives us a 3- part or act structure. The word "act" means "the action of carrying something out."

Many screenplays are organized into a 3-act structure. The tradition of writing in this form comes from the theater and was followed by filmmakers. Think of it as a foundation for building a house that others can easily identify, even if the details are new and original.

Act 1, called the Set-up, The situation and characters and conflict are introduced. This classically is 30 minutes long.

Act 2, called The Conflict, often an hour long, is where the conflict begins and expands until it reaches a crisis.

Act 3, called The Resolution, the conflict rises to one more crisis and then is resolved.

How To Write The Treatment

Find A Title

Whether the screenwriter is creating a new story or writing a treatment based on an existing script, the first step is to make sure that the screenplay has a good title. The first contact a prospective producer has with a script is the title. Pick a title that gives a clear idea of what genre the screenplay is written in. (See my 2-part article that appeared in this magazine for more detail on genre. A good title can predispose a producer or reader to like a screenplay because it suggests the kind of experience that is in store and arouses curiosity. Great classic film titles include It Happened One Night, Psycho and Die Hard.

A film I recently consulted on is called, And Then Came Love. This is a good title because it describes the story and the style or genre it's written in - a light romantic comedy. The title does not determine whether or the screenplay is good but it can be a great marketing tool. There's a famous quote that is helpful to keep in mind when naming screenplays: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Romeo and Juliet (Quote Act II, Sc. II).

If you want a producer to read your script, pick a name that matches your story.

Write a logline

The second step is to write a logline. Preparing a log line for your screenplay is a basic marketing tool that I have repurposed for developing treatments. It is similar to the summary given in TV Guide. It is a technique for boiling down a plotline to its essence that has been described as trying to vomit into a thimble.

Follow the example below when writing a logline:

And Then Came Love is a character-driven romantic comedy about a high-powered Manhattan single mom who opens Pandora's box when she seeks out the anonymous sperm donor father of her young son.

Write a synopsis

The third step is to a synopsis. Begin by expanding the logline into a three-act story Start with the end. For example, Let's work with The Silence Of The Lambs:

Act 3: Clarice Starling catches the killer and saves the intended victim.

Then break down into three acts. For example,

Act 1: While still a student at The FBI, Clarice is asked to help on a case. She's eager to help and interviews Hannibal Lector who gives her a clue.

Act 2: With his help, she is able to overcome many obstacles, and finds the identity of the killer.

Act 3: She confronts the killer, saves his intended victim and atones for the death of the lamb. The scriptwriter should follow this break down for his or her story, and then expand this into a synopsis.

Follow the example below of And Then Came Love:

Julie (mid 40s), a successful Manhattan reporter-turned-columnist believes she has it all - a great job, a rent controlled apartment, a boyfriend and best of all, an adorable six-year-old son named Jake, whom she conceived via an anonymous sperm donor.

Her perfect world, however, is rocked when she's called in for an emergency parent-teacher conference and learns that her son has been acting up, needs to be 'tested' and is on the brink of expulsion. Over-whelmed, Julie instinctively blames herself... it's easy to do since her mother has made her feel inadequate for not being a stay-at-home mom.

Julie, however, will not concede that her mother could be right, so she places genetic blame on Jake's anonymous father. Through a private investigator, Julie learns the identity of the donor and meets him - Paul, a struggling actor and law school dropout. Julie has neither intention nor desire to reveal her identity to him, she simply needs to check her sources, get the facts, and move on.

A child psychiatrist tells Julie that Jake does not appear to have ADHD, but could benefit from a "father figure" in his life. Julie's boyfriend, a charismatic photo-journalist is up for the challenge and proposes. Julie believes her life is back on course until Paul, the donor, shows up, hoping she'll promote the offoff Broadway show in which he's performing.

Jake instantly bonds with Paul. No matter how hard Julie tries to keep Paul from complicating her life, the more he does as he begins to fall for her, and she finds she can not deny her feelings for him, and her boyfriend is pushing to set a date. ( written by Caytha Jentis, writer/producer)

Writing Treatment

Once the synopsis is written, the preparation is complete and the screenwriter can take the synopsis and expand it into a treatment by correcting structure and adding detail. Now write your treatment following this sample movie treatment.

Good Luck, and don't forget to register your treatment with the Writer's Guild of America.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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