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The business of film, television & new media production in the Northeast
imagine magazine logo
The business of film, television & new media production in the Northeast

“You try to think in terms of trying to advance the narrative not as much with dialogue as with image. Even if the narrative is being advanced while the people are talking, they should not be talking about the narrative.”

Robert Towne at The American Film Institute.

What is a Treatment? How does it function?

The Treatment and how it functions in the process of screenwriting is one of the most misunderstood elements of the art of screenwriting.  Usually, it is one of the last, if not the absolute last document written by the screenwriter before the actual work of the first draft of the screenplay begins.

It has two functions. Most importantly, it is a description of the story that the filmmakers are going to tell in cinematic context. However, it is composed in literary context, as opposed to cinematic context, in narrative paragraph form. It gives specific descriptions of the story in terms of dramatic movement, visual storytelling and character development. The beginning, middle and end of the story, in treatment format, should be composed in such a way that each and every plot point of the story are clear to both the reader, as well as the screenwriter.

The beauty of the treatment is that there are fewer constraints on the writer than in the highly constrained format of the screenplay. It is here that the writer, while in the act of ordering the story in its final stage before committing it to the screenplay format, can provide moments of discovery that will help make the story more visual. While there is less compression in this format, (as opposed to the screenplay format) compression still exists within a treatment. As noted in previous articles, the concept of less is more, and the attempt, in every sentence, to create maximum atmosphere using minimal prose, are of great importance. These two elements are especially important because literally all of the story structure of the screenplay must be present in the treatment. So, while there is less constraint in the treatment, it is, nonetheless, still there.

The general visual style of your story should be evident in the treatment. However, one must also be careful not to become too heavy handed with visual direction, or with the description of transitions, when writing in treatment format. So, with this in mind, if there are key moments in the visual story that should be executed in a certain style or by using various visual devices, to convey tones, i.e.; a series of quick cuts, a series of dissolves, etc., then by all means, include those choices. But, do this minimally. The key is to set the visual tone and to keep the story moving forward.

Dialogue should be kept to a minimum. However, key moments of dialogue that bridge acts or plot points together can indeed be helpful to the construction process of the treatment. So if you need to include dialogue, do so, but again, less is more. The treatment should never be loaded with dialogue. Stick with the process of juxtaposing images, tell the story, and get out of the way.

It is also of great importance to make every attempt to conceal the sub plot, or back story, in such a way that the discovery of their connection to the main conflict is, upon discovery, very satisfying to the reader. If the back story is overemphasized in the treatment stage, it will appear too large in the screenplay stage.

Be sure that your characters are moving through the plot, not moving the plot through dialogue. The treatment is an opportunity to identify dialogue that is on the nose, that is to say; a description spoken by the character of what the audience is seeing on the screen. A simple example…The characters walk to the car. CHARACTER: “Let’s walk to the car”: An elementary example of a glaring error that screenwriters frequently make.

The treatment should always be written in present tense. The goal is always to create pictures that move, and are then juxtaposed, in the mind of the reader. One after another, the reader’s eye should float down the page, consuming one visual image after another, the sum total of which tell a story in a cinematic context.  The inclusion of an epigraph at the front of the treatment ( a short motto or quotation that set the tone of the piece) can be useful if properly used.

Especially important are the transitions between times and locations in your story. Take care in this regard not to become too technical in your choices of how these transitions take place. Think tone, and think thematically. Avoid technical jargon.

While the first function of the treatment is to assist the writer in the visual composition of the story, it is also a sales tool. Oftentimes, a producer, director, or other creative member of a production entity will request a treatment from the writer in the interest of helping them decide whether or not they want to move forward with the project. Ultimately, on the sales tool side of the equation, it may be used to decide whether or not a financial investment will be made. In this regard, there may be a difference in how the treatment in written. When presenting a treatment for the purpose of gathering financing or attaching a star, a screenwriter will oftentimes downplay some of the already minimalized technical elements of a treatment intended for pre-production. The Producers, investors and talent agents are simply trying to learn two things about your story while reading the treatment: Does this story work? And: Will people pay money to see this?

Having said this, the treatment is an opportunity for the screenwriter to spread his or her wings and to sell what makes their story unique to investors, but without the constraints of the screenplay format. This is especially important when one considers that you may be dealing with a first time investor. While the idea of making a movie can be alluring, the language of cinema-speak to the uninitiated can be intimidating and distancing.

Be sure that the treatment, in any form, clearly identifies:

1.    The main characters.
2.    What they want.
The forces that prevent them from what 
they need or want to accomplish.
4.    The central conflict.
5.    The consequences of failure.
6.    The rewards for success.

There are wide ranging differences of opinion on what the length of the treatment should be. This depends on who the final users of the treatment are. If you are writing the treatment for an investor, producer or agent, be sure to get to the point quickly. Tell the story and get out of the way. I have read treatments which have been a single page in length. I have also read treatments which are nearly one hundred pages in length and sometimes longer. This longer form is often confused with a novella; a construct which shares many similarities to screenplay structure. Whatever the length, the point is to convey to the prospective investor or creative person why your story will make a great feature film.

The treatment that you prepare as the final document before writing a screenplay (some will chose to create a beat sheet before the screenplay document) has no such boundaries. However, by condensing what can be condensed, it will get your cinematic mind warmed up and help get the specific images moving in the minds of the reader, and hopefully, in the minds of an audience.

Peter Fox holds a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. He has worked at Paramount, Universal, Sony Pictures and MGM as a reader and Story Analyst. He has conducted The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure 
throughout the U.S. since 2001.

Last month’s article incorrectly cited the song “Time Is On My Side” as from the movie SEVEN. It was, in fact, used in the film,  FALLEN, starring Denzel Washington,  John Goodman and Donald Sutherland.