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How To Write A Film Treatment

April 20, 2012


How to write a film treatment and, what does the treatment look like?

Film treatments typically come in two forms, a shorter, more concise one for early screenplay marketing efforts, while the other is a more detailed document that usually goes to executives. They’re both essentially breaking down the elements of your story or screenplay into a more narrative form.

The short form version is usually the one that either gets sent in with a screenplay submission or is handed out to whomever you may be pitching the script to. It should at a minimum detail the essential elements of your story, the main characters and give enough “oomph” to get a reader through the story from beginning to end. It can be just a couple of pages all the way to maybe 12 to 15. Much beyond that and you’ll run the risk of the reader losing interest just from the weight of the stack of pages. There’s a funny quote that goes, “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” The point being that even though it’s short, that can actually be a hindrance to you, as you really have to be selective in pairing down your work into something manageable.

How to tighten it up

The process of getting a really tight, concise treatment varies for everyone, but a good starting point is to write it out pretty loose and include a fair amount of detail. From there, start slowly going through it and finding ways to reword and shorten it down. Sit on it for a bit and then repeat the process. As far as I’m concerned, as a general rule, shorter is almost always better. You have to understand that, if you’re submitting to a farily prolific production company, they just get bombarded with hopeful screenplay writers and their submissions. The readers that get hired to sift through the muck see a ton of crap all day long.

Believe me, some of this stuff is just horribly bad. I should really say most of it. The worst of it is, almost all of that bad material is being generated from writers that actually have good enough representation to get it to the reader to begin with! The point of all this is that, you want to approach your film treatment from the point of view of a burned out, probably frustrated writer who just can’t wait to crap on the next screenplay that comes across his or her desk, because THAT is the guy or gal that’s probably reading your treatment BEFORE they read your script.

Know who you’re writing for

So, try and put yourself in their shoes. You want to go a step further, I’d suggest you actually go out and read some amateur scripts and screenplays so you can really see how time consuming and tedious the process of reading other people’s work can be. You can join a site like’s “Virtual Studio” where people can submit and review filmmaking related stuff. Once you sign up (don’t worry, it’s free) you can navigate to the “Writer’s Building” and start reviewing other people’s screenplays. I’d say you should challenge yourself to see how many scripts you can read before you want to blow your brains out. You’ll be amazed at how bad most of the stuff is and how hard it can be to get through even just a couple of them.

Now imagine doing that for a living day in and day out.

So, keep all that in mind when you’re writing out your treatment. As a rule, you’ll want to speak plainly and avoid anything that reeks of sales speak or using flowery adjectives (like amazing, never before seen, this incredible story, etc.) in your text. You write a treatment as you would a screenplay, using the present tense and showing the reader what’s happening in the world, without adding camera moves or subjective elements like in this example:

“The camera dollies into a grungy apartment and the audience sees a buxom blond on a large couch”.

Instead, try to be more descriptive in a fictional sense:

“The apartment is grungy, but a buxom blond sits alone on a massive couch”

You are ideally painting your film with words in the reader’s mind, rather than creating a report on your screenplay like you would for school. Just remember, the writing phase of film production should mirror the goals of what you want to accomplish with the film. And, (hopefully) what you want for the film is to immediately engage and entice your viewer so they get lured into your story and allow themselves to be immersed in your world. Same is true with your treatment and you’ll ideally have the same effect on even a jaded reader. If you can make them just be interested in the story rather than thinking about the fact that they’re doing their job, you’re on the right path.

The active voice and being too “wordy”

Keeping the writing active and concise can be tough, especially for new writers. Just be sure you watch for things like “He walked to the door, but he hesitated while he went” as, that is way too wordy AND in the past tense. Consider “He goes to the door hesitantly” as an alternative and hopefully you can see the difference in both means of conveyance and keeping the voice “active”. It can be easy to slip up if you’re not careful, but writing a treatment is the time you want to be extra careful! Always remember who that reader is.

The draft treatment

The longer version of the film treatment usually comes after a production company is taking on your script. It will have the same basic elements as the treatment you submitted or handed out during your pitch. If you worked on a long form that got paired down, now is the time to “reinflate” it and put some of that detail that got cut out back in. The beauty of writing this way is that the act of pairing down the work can really fuel the creative process in filling in the gaps, plus, you will have really boiled the story down to the lean and mean essentials. Giving your new readers, which will probably be executives at the production company, the lean mean details in an expanded and more involved capacity will be far better than handing in a long meandering draft treatment.

There are no rules on how long the draft treatment should be, but as a general rule, you will want to convey a pretty good sense of the film and you might even start incorporating some dialogue at this point to really get the reader involved. But, keep it short, you still want this to be more “readable” than just an elongated screenplay.

Breaking the film treatment down

So, the essence of writing a film treatment is that you take your time to really narrow down your story into a tight concise form. It’s actually better to write the longer film treatment using the presentation treatment as a base. Be sure to give it to at least a few people you trust before you start sending it out and watch them read it. You can learn a lot just by seeing their reactions. Ideally, you’ll ask a few pertinant questions to make sure they didn’t start skimming through, which would be a strong indicator that your treatment has gotten boring in the middle somewhere.

Just remember, it’s a creative process and it can take some practice and time to get right, but it’s time well spend if it actually helps you get past the disgruntled gatekeeper known as a reader.

Hope this helps!


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