Today I want to discuss treatments. To do this, I first need to define what a treatment is, which is difficult because they are so varied. On the most basic level, a treatment is a prose description of a screenplay you intend to write. It may contain a few lines of important dialogue, but mostly it summarizes the story.
Many screenwriters do treatments as part of their personal story development process. I also like to write a treatment between my first draft and second draft, to refocus on the big picture and better evaluate what I need to change. Since these treatments are for personal use, they can be done in any format and length you like.
However other treatments are done for business/selling purposes. These are the kinds of treatments I’m going to focus on today.
Please understand, it is rare to sell a treatment in the way that you might sell a screenplay. However, you might use a treatment to support a pitch (a “leave behind”) or as part of a package presented to investors for an independent film. It is also not unusual to have a “treatment step” in your contract if you sell an original idea. This means you will turn a treatment in to the buyers before moving to first draft so they can make sure you’re heading in the right direction and give you notes. At least that's the idea.
The first question you'll probably have is length. Typically these types of treatments run between four and ten pages, though some go longer. James Cameron’s treatment for The Terminator runs 48 pages and is almost literally the screenplay without dialogue. If I have a treatment step in a contract, the first thing I will do is discuss with the producers and executives what they are expecting. For pitch leave-behinds, I recommend doing no more than a single page – more of a summary than a treatment, really.
Often a treatment will start with a short overview of the basic concept of the film. Here is the overview that begins Simon Kinberg’s five-page treatment for Mr. and Mrs. Smith:
"MR AND MRS. SMITH" is a sexy, stylized action-comedy that’s a duel-to-the-death between the world’s top two assassins... who happen to be husband and wife, hired to kill each other. In hunting each other, their dying marriage turns into a passionate love affair, as they go toe-to-toe, playing cat and mouse... and slowly falling back in love in the process -- seeing, understanding, appreciating each other for the very first time—in the midst of battle.
Their process is really like the process of marriage therapy, which is intended to help a couple: initiate, interact, communicate, compromise, adapt, and ultimately fall in love. Through their hunt, they have to do these same things—because these are also the primary skills an assassin uses with a mark: initiating, interacting, compromising, and adapting to the target.
Tonally, the film should be a collision of different genres—action, romance, comedy, even social (suburban) satire. The world of the Smiths is slightly hyperreal, mischievous, and always dangerous.
As you can see, Kinberg is laying out the concept for the film with an emphasis on tone and style. There is also a sense of the thematic underpinnings of the story, and the writer’s approach to the concept.
This may or may not be followed by short descriptions of the major characters. Then, you would launch into a summary of the story, which makes up the bulk of the treatment. Many treatments just launch right into the story with no overview or character descriptions.
If you intend to show the treatment to a producer, executive, or really anyone, I would highly recommend that you consider this a selling document, more akin to a pitch than an outline – even if you've already gotten the job of writing the script. If you simply recite dry plot points, your treatment will not capture the drama, humor, excitement and wit of the final screenplay. If you are using the treatment as a sales tool, this will definitely not help you make the sale. If you are submitting the treatment as part of a step deal, it could scare the buyers into thinking you are going wildly off course. They may respond with panicked notes that actually do take the project off course. The blame will lie with you for not properly conveying and promoting your vision for the film.
So you have to use good, evocative prose – like a novel. Here is a good example from Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s eleven page treatment for The Mask of Zorro:
Montero's homecoming is a huge, pomp-and-circumstance event. Torches light the beach as Montero steps off the boat, welcomed by important, influential men who nonetheless defer to Montero: he is a monarch returning home.
In the crowd, Diego focuses on Montero. He moves toward him as Montero greets his welcoming party. A knife appears in Diego's hand. Murder in his eye. He closes in --
A voice calls "Father!" Diego and Montero turn. Elena steps through the crowd. Diego instantly recognizes her. She moves past him, into Montero's arms. Calls him 'Father' again. Diego's resolve disappears. He is devastated. The knife slips from his fingers. He realizes Elena loves Montero. He cannot just kill him in front of her. Diego turns, vanishes.
Being longer, The Mask of Zorro treatment naturally goes into some detail. Let’s look at another excerpt from the shorter Mr. & Mrs. Smith treatment that condenses the story more:
What follows through the second act is basically a heightened, charged game of “cat and mouse,” with John and Jane hunting each other through the maze of Manhattan. In terms of marriage therapy, they’ve initiated. And now they’re interacting and communicating. As they hunt, they have to pay attention to each other for the first time—and in doing so, they slowly come to understand and appreciate each other, rediscovering the passion they once had. They’re like two master artists excited by each other’s work, pushing each other to be better, faster, stronger—and learning each other’s moves in the process—really learning about each other.
See how both these treatments bring the arcs and conflicts of the story to vivid life? You may also notice how they focus on the characters and their journey. This is important. Just like a movie (or a screenplay or a pitch) we enter the story through character. It is why we care about what happens. You have to get us invested in the character and tell the story from their point of view.
Look at how this excerpt from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s three-page treatment for The People vs. Larry Flynt keeps the emphasis on the main character even as it moves through a large chunk of the story very quickly:
1978. While entering the Atlanta courthouse, [Larry] is shot. Eight months in the hospital. Larry’s in incredible pain. His intestine gets removed. Nobody is ever arrested in the shooting. Larry babbles endless conspiracy theories behind who gunned him down: JFK, FBI, KKK, Charles Keating, the Mob.... Finally he can’t handle his day-to-day existence, and he puts Althea in charge of the corporation. Then Larry starts taking massive drugs for the pain, disappearing into a dark miserable haze....
1983. Larry emerges from the darkness.., and five years have invisibly passed. It’s now a different era—Reagan’s in office. Larry has surgery to sever the nerves to his legs. He’ll never walk again, but the pain will be gone. He kicks the drugs and is now revitalized, but with a horribly changed vision of the country: America turned its back on him. He doesn’t believe in the dream anymore.
Summarizing your story in this exciting, character focused way is not only good salesmanship; it will help you with your writing. It will force you to step back from all the details of your plot and really examine what is exciting, interesting and emotionally engaging in your story. Even if you only write a treatment for yourself, I recommend writing the most compelling version you can.
There are other terms for documents that are similar to treatments. A one-page treatment is often called a “summary.” A “step outline” is a treatment that breaks down every scene with a slug line. They tend to be longer and more fully developed. A “scriptment” is a hybrid – a treatment with some sections of the story fully delineated in screenplay form (I’ve even seen one that included some storyboards). I’m actually not quite sure why anybody would do a scriptment – at that point I’d just write the whole screenplay – but they seem to be more popular these days.
Whatever form and format your treatment takes, the goal is still the same: tell your story in the most compelling way possible.