Screenwriting 101 — The Treatment

Okay. So:

*You have a cool idea for a movie
*You know who the protagonist is and what the protagonist wants and who is in the protagonist’s way
*You’ve sketched out a basic act structure
*You’ve expanded upon that sketch and written your outline.

Now the work begins: it is time to write a treatment.

In my experience, this is the point where screenplays are won or lost. Almost anyone can have, and has had, a cool idea for a movie. A dog accidentally gets issued a credit card — there, I just had one myself!

And a similar number of people could sketch out a basic three act structure for that movie: Act I, the dog gets the credit card and goes hog-wild, buying all kinds of things, Act II, the dog’s bills come due, and he finds he must get a job in order to pay for all the things he bought, Act III, the dog, through his experience, learns that he was happier not having a credit card after all.

Putting together an outline starts to get a little more difficult, but the treatment is where the rubber hits the road.

Basically, a treatment is a prose version of your screenplay, your screenplay, in a way, told as a short story.

You may ask, hey wait, if I was any damn good at prose, what the hell would I be doing writing a screenplay? If I could freakin’ write prose, I’d be freakin’ Raymond Carver, I wouldn’t be scraping around trying to write a screenplay! And I understand your pain, for I have felt it myself.

Okay then, let’s not think of it as prose, let’s think of it this way: you’ve just seen a really cool movie, and you can’t wait to tell me about it.

The movie’s just let out and you’re totally buzzed about it and you meet up with me at a good restaurant afterward and you have to tell me about the movie and get it all out before the food comes. Go!

“There’s this guy, Rob, and he lives in New York, and he’s got a job working for some big-deal corporate thing, and he’s all psyched because he just got transferred to Japan, and he can’t wait to go, but guess what? There’s this girl, Beth, and she’s got this totally awesome apartment on Columbus Circle that belongs to her dad, and Rob has been friends with her off and on for a long time but now he’s, like, totally fallen in love with her, but he decides he can’t really tell her that, because, right, he’s about to leave for Japan forever. So he’s conflicted about that, and then the night before he leaves, all his cool friends get together and throw him a surprise party, and Beth is there, but she’s with some other guy, some douche we don’t know, and all his other friends are there, and his best friend is, like, shooting the whole party with Rob’s video camera, so Rob can’t, like, say anything to Beth, even though he really wants to, because he’s leaving the next day and everyone wants to say goodbye and his dorky best friend Hud is shooting everything with this video camera. And get this — the whole movie? is shown from the point-of-view of Hud, through Rob’s video camera. So it’s this really cool cinema-verite kind of thing, we pick up random pieces of behavior, and we see Hud is trying to put the make on this girl Marlene, and he’s really not doing his job very well, and it’s totally funny and awesome and everything, because Hud’s, like, taping over this tape that Rob made about his one date with Beth, so like he unknowingly is, like, being a total dick. And anyway, Beth leaves the party with the douche and Rob gets really upset and everyone’s concerned and Rob’s brother Jason or somebody tells him he absolutely has to go after Beth, and then you know what happens? A GIANT MONSTER SHOWS UP AND STARTS BLOWING STUFF UP!!”

There. The above paragraph is, in essence, a treatment for the first 20 minutes of Cloverfield. I, personally, would not hand this in to a producer for consideration, but BELIEVE ME, I’VE READ WORSE.

Now, look at that paragraph again. It’s not great prose, it’s barely prose at all, but it describes the plot with a kind of propulsive energy and sense of movement, and what’s more, it does it in a language that gets across the 21st-century, internet-generation sensibility (or at least my 46-year-old’s interpretation of same). And that’s all a treatment really has to do. It has to tell the story, the whole story, and get across the general feeling of the movie. If you were writing the treatment for There Will Be Blood, it would probably be more like this:

“There’s a landscape. A harsh, unforgiving landscape. Rocks. Dirt. Punishing sun. Texas. Or Hell. And there’s a hole in that landscape. A wound. And deep in that wound, silent but for the steady pound of his pick, there is a man. Filthy, strong, mustachioed. Deep in a wound in the Earth, the man slams his pick, a tool of destiny, against the flinty walls of this hole, this grave he has prematurely dug in order to bury his soul. Sparks fly from the rocks, each one a symbol of the life of man, which flares only for an instant before being forever snuffed out.”

And so on.

Again, while the treatment should be readable, the most important thing about it is that it gets across your story points in a voice that gets across the feeling of the movie. The hard part is that it has to get across all the story, scene by scene, all the way through, with no “and then there’s this cool action set-piece I’ll figure out later” thrown in.

Now, what’s the point of this exercise? Why not just write the goddamn screenplay? Wouldn’t that just take less time?

Well, perhaps. But if you’re anything like me, what you will have at the end of your process is a screenplay no one will want to read. Because you haven’t worked out the story ahead of time as a treatment.

The point of all this pre-work work is to iron out all your plot points, character arcs and whatnot so that, when you sit down to write your screenplay, you’ve already done all the work and you can enjoy the process of writing.

Some people, I guess, can just sit down at their computer and open up Final Draft and just go ahead and start in writing their screenplay, and “feel” where it should go next, and those people can allow themselves to wander and surprise themselves and come up with something new and startling and original and amazing, something they wouldn’t have come up with if they had sat down ahead of time to think things out.

Two things:

1. I am not one of those writers.

If I start a screenplay working like that, what happens is I have a great idea for an opening sequence, then I get to page 25 or so and I realize that the great opening sequence isn’t going to work because it contradicts something that happens later in the act, but I’m loath to go back and kill my great opening sequence because I loved it so dearly when I was writing it and it turned out so nice and, well, what if I just typed up some brilliant bullshit to cover up the fact that I started without knowing where I was going?

2. I find that if I have done the difficult work of ironing out my story before I write my screenplay, I am able, once I sit down to do that, to do that creative thing, where I take chances and just “let ideas come” and “fool around” with the ideas and so forth. Once I have the tracks laid and nailed in place, I find that I can make the train engine fancy or plain or asymetrical or goofy and know that it will still get to the station on time.

There is no set length. I’ve read treatments as short as two pages and as long as 42. The ones that are two pages long, I’ve found, favor sensation over logic and leave out a lot of crucial stuff. (My favorite sentence in a treatment ever, written by a very successful writer/director, for a project that didn’t happen, was “And did I mention the radioactive sharks?” I guess you had to be there.)

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17 Responses to “Screenwriting 101 — The Treatment”
  1. foresthouse says:

    Hi there – I found you via a list in ‘s journal of Neat Journals To Read, and I think whoever nominated you was right. 🙂 I’d like to friend you, if you don’t mind. 🙂

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I demand my movie with radioactive sharks.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m intrigued by your assertion that the voice of the treatment sets the tone of the movie. This never occurred to me before (of course) but makes total sense.

    Pay attention, novice screenwriters!

    Unfortunately, I’m hung up (of course) on the idea of a dog with a credit card. Here’s what my dog would buy: steak, lamb shanks, oily fish. But honestly, she’d be happy with an unlimited supply of chewed gum, fried chicken-wing bones, and horse shit — exactly what she scrounges on the street (though less of the latter since the local stable closed). This is not movie fodder: thank goodness you don’t make actual documentaries.

    Do studio execs read 42 pages at a time?


    • Todd says:

      There is, of course, a flaw in my outline for the dog-with-a-credit-card movie: I have forgotten to give my protagonist a want. What it should say is “The dog wants to _____, and getting the credit card facilitates that want.” And then the dog realizes that it didn’t really need that thing after all.

      Some executives, like Mr. Katzenberg, do read treatments, and screenplays as well. Others get people to do it for them.

  4. craigjclark says:

    According to the book Writing with Hitchcock, the treatment for Rear Window by Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes was something like 70 pages long. Paramount, which produced the film, held it up as an example of the ideal treatment and for a time gave it to all writers working on scripts for the studio.

  5. Have you considered submitting anything to Why We Write?

  6. stephenls says:

    I am not, obviously, a screenwriter.

    (Hi. I started reading your LJ because of Justice League posts, and never really stopped.)

    But I do write. And the thing I find interesting about this entry is I appear to be the exact opposite of you. You mention using the treatment as a way to work out all the structural issues so that when you set out to write the screenplay proper, you can just enjoy the process of writing. For me, I really enjoy working out all the structural issues, and am heavily into outlining, but I find the actual writing agonizing. I’m all “I already did this! Why am I still working on this idea?”

    • Todd says:

      Well, that’s interesting.

      For me, the purpose of outlining is, like I say, “designing the boat,” so that when I’m actually building the boat I can enjoy the process of building, and thinking about what a boat is, and picking what kinds of wood I want, and what color stain, and what kinds of trim in which kinds of brass, and whether it should be wind or steam powered and so forth. The outlining is the disciplined part, so that when I’m doing the actual writing I can concentrate more on the poetry part of it, knowing that the boat will still float even though it’s made of poetry, to mix a metaphor.

      Hitchcock (since everyone seems to be thinking of Hitchcock on this series of posts), they say, loved loved loved planning out the movie, but hated hated hated shooting it, for exactly the reasons you cite — he’d already made the movie, why was he wasting his time trying to get a bunch of actors and technicians to make it for him again?

      I guess for me, or for any screenwriter, the fact that the screenplay is the actual commercial object that one sells means that all the work must go toward making that object as compelling as possible. This is how it works for me, your results may vary.

      • stephenls says:


        There’s a joke about a mathematician encountering a fire in his kitchen, seeing a functional sink and empty bucket, and then ignoring the fire. When asked why later (by firemen, presumably), he replies “Clearly a solution existed.”

        I suppose I’m more interested in the boat’s design than in the color of the trim. Which can be a problem if trim colors are what I’m being paid for, so to speak.

        Maybe I should switch to engineering.

  7. rjwhite says:

    How drastically different are these guidelines from those in writing for the stage? It’s still a matter of telling a person’s story, the guy who wants something and the story of getting it. Is there a bit more flexibility on stage, because there are different expectations from the audience?

    Couldn’t this all be vital to telling a story in any format?

    • Todd says:

      I would say that these rules apply to all forms of storytelling.

      The difference in a screenplay is that the screenplay is not the end product itself. A novel is a novel. It could be a worldwide bestseller or it could sit in your desk drawer, it’s still a novel. A screenplay, however, is only a blueprint for a potential finished product, “the movie” — that’s why structure is so important, no one would ever build a boat based on a set of blueprints that merely described the great feeling you’d have while sailing on the ocean.

      • rjwhite says:

        Thing is, I’ve written comedy sketches and other pieces kind of using this process- but didn’t exactly think of it in this way and this just makes it so much clearer. It just makes more sense. Thank you.

    • Anonymous says:

      These rules apply to nonfiction, too. I outline any magazine or newspaper article I write that’s longer than about 2,500 words (shorter than that I can outline in my head — usually). On a very long piece, as with any sustained storytelling, this stage is absolutely essential, and, as Todd said, the fun part comes later.

  8. ayrn says:

    I’ve been reading for a while and always enjoy, especially as a thought-provoking break from work. Incidentally, this screenwriting series came at an excellent time for me. I’ve just picked up my first full-length play after a year and I’m finally stepping towards producing it with a bunch of students. You really have a knack for articulating critical concepts in an easily comprehended and colorful way. “What does the protagonist want?” became my mantra recently and helped me find a critical arc that’s driving my piece through the second act. Thanks very much!