Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Treatments, Outlines and Beat Sheets

There’s lots of terminology in screenwriting and something that seems to confuse a lot of people is the difference between treatments, outlines, step outlines, beat sheets and summaries. Probably because those terms aren’t actually all that well defined. While the format for a page of screenplay can easily be found and learned (with a little effort), the format when someone asks for an outline is more ambiguous.


A treatment is a prose telling of the story of your screenplay. It is done in present tense, like a screenplay, but is written in paragraphs like a novel. It usually doesn’t contain dialogue except maybe for a few key lines. It might pontificate a bit on theme or tone but won’t necessarily (although a well written treatment should reflect the tone of the eventual screenplay). And be sure not to ignore character development in the treatment!

Length is the real question with a treatment. The term pretty much refers to anything over a couple pages. I’ve seen treatments that are four pages long and ones that are longer than the eventual screenplay (although why one would do this escapes me.) Generally if you’re asked to submit a treatment as part of a step deal you’re talking about a 12 – 25 page document. Often if you’re asked to provide a treatment the length range will be specified.

A word of warning: if you’re asked to turn a treatment in you’ll want to jazz up the writing. For my own personal use I’m mostly concerned with getting the story down. But if I’m going to show it to someone else I want to make sure it’s a good read. You are always selling yourself and your work any time you show material to a buyer.


A summary is like a treatment but shorter, usually from 100 words to one page. This can be a challenge to write, but it can also be useful to you as a writer. If you can’t summarize your story in less than a page you may not know what story you’re really trying to tell. Often I’ll write a summary for my own use even after I’ve written a much longer treatment or outline – sometimes after I’ve written a whole draft! It helps me refocus on what’s most important in the story.

For industry purposes, summaries are usually attached to scripts for people who don’t have time to read the whole thing. Professional readers create summaries when they do coverage, and they’re often requested by screenplay contests.


This is a new term that refers to something that is a hybrid of script and treatment. Some parts might be written out in detail with dialogue in screenplay format, while other parts are described in prose form.

Outlines and Step Outlines

An outline is an amorphous term that could refer to any number of formats. In screenwriting we most often talk about a “step outline.” A step outline is a detailed document that indicates every scene in the planned screenplay with a few sentences on each, maybe even including some bits of dialogue in the prose. I usually put the slug line for each scene at the top and then write a paragraph or so underneath. Sometimes the scenes are numbered for easy reference. I usually don’t begin my first draft until I have a 15-20 page step outline for my own use.

Beat Sheets

A beat sheet is a bullet point outline of the main actions of the story, written in paragraph form. Length varies dramatically depending on the level of detail. Most beat sheets I’ve seen contain from 12-24 bullet points and are 2-8 pages long. They are often used when designing a pitch.


Of all of these, the ones you will most likely be asked to provide to a producer or exec are a treatment or a summary. If you’re asked for something else, it’s fair to request guidance on what format and length they’d like to see.

There are plusses and minuses to having a treatment step in your contract. On the plus side, you get a bit more of your money a bit earlier in the process (assuming they pay on time) because there’s a payment associated with the treatment. On the minus side, it gives people an opportunity to give you notes on the story. If the treatment doesn’t do an effective job of capturing what your first draft will be, you run the risk of having to incorporate bad ideas before you get a chance to show what you can do.


Lee Stewart said...

Is it helpful to include character bios or other information to any of these?


Anonymous said...

I've often found in the past that when people ask for an outline they mean treatments and vice-versa.

Thanks Doug for clarifying.

Doug Eboch said...

From time to time I do see extemporaneous character and theme descriptions in treatments. I'd try to integrate them in the narrative as much as possible. It's certainly common to do a paragraph or so describing the major characters as they're introduced. I haven't really scene anything like that in a step outline or beat sheet. It may be a bit of personal taste -- myself, I prefer to see character revealed through the story.