Writing treat­ments

It’s important first of all to estab­lish what a treat­ment is and what it is not. A treat­ment is not the same thing as a synopsis, for example, which is a condensed version of the plot of a film.  It is also different from an outline (see below) which is a diagnostic or devel­op­ment docu­ment used by a writer in the course of getting a script onto paper.

A treat­ment is a selling docu­ment. It is used either to generate interest in a script before it is written or to sell it once it is completed.

Treat­ments should feel like pictures rushing together to form a story in which you can see the char­ac­ters and hear them speak. A treat­ment should never read like a synopsis, like dull beats of a plot moving forward, trudging toward a predict­able outcome. When you’re reading the pages, however simple, the thrill of the story must be captured.

And how do you do that? You forget that you’re writing a treat­ment and tell the story like a classic around-the-campfire cliff­hanger – as if every event happened before your very eyes and you can’t wait to share it”.

Victoria Wisdom (Agent)

Anyone who writes scripts is going to be faced with the task of writing a treat­ment at some time. The most common situ­ation is when you have a completed script that you want some­body to read but they ask to see a treat­ment first. This happens to even estab­lished scriptwriters and is a reflec­tion of the commit­ment required by a reader to give a full-length script proper consideration.

The second situ­ation is when you are pitching an idea for a film to some­body that may be in a posi­tion to help you get it made — but you haven’t yet written the script. This is more likely to happen when you have built up some cred­ib­ility as a scriptwriter and is inev­it­able if you’re a profes­sional because you can’t afford to write scripts purely on spec if you need to pay your rent and put food on the table.

It is not easy to write a good treatment!

Many writers say they find it harder than writing an actual script. It’s certainly an art form in itself; one with many pitfalls and requires skills that go beyond those normally needed in writing a script. On the plus side: writing, or trying to write, a treat­ment can be a very useful exer­cise because it exposes merci­lessly any flaws or weak­nesses in your story.

To sum it up: writing a treat­ment is about selling your story as you’re telling it – but without making it too obvious what you’re doing. Getting the balance right is where the art lies.


Making Your Pitch

You should pitch your project to a few trusted friends. If you can’t get them inter­ested in reading your script before you write it, don’t write it”

Alex Epstein, Inter­me­diate Scriptwriting

The ‘live’ coun­ter­part of a treat­ment is a pitch — an oppor­tunity to give a verbal present­a­tion of your ideas to the person or persons you want to impress.

Here you are relying not just on your words but on your talents as a presenter. Nerve­wracking as such an exper­i­ence can be, it’s a good situ­ation to keep at the front of your mind when you’re doing the equi­valent on paper.

It’s the way you tell it – or sell it – that counts

Imagine this: you’ve just seen a film you really liked and you’re trying to convince a friend to go and see it too. Do you try to describe it scene by scene, giving a blow by blow account, and commu­nicate your enthu­siasm at the same time?

We’ve all prob­ably succumbed to this at some time and the usual result is a glazed eye and a fixed smile from the listener.

Why? Because enthu­siasm isn’t enough. Your exper­i­ence of the film was created by more than just the events; it was made up of many subtleties that are hard to pin down and the more you try to do it, the less convin­cing you become.

Do you try to describe the char­ac­ters in the story? Or the high­lights of the actors’ performances?

Make refer­ences to other films your friend might have seen?

Do you try to summarise the whole film in a few words or sentences that you hope capture the film’s essence or theme?

Wiz_oz2None of these methods is intrins­ic­ally right or wrong, and they are still all used as ways of pitching films, but they can often be hit or miss in terms of achieving your objective: to get some­body to invest in your concept.

If you have unlim­ited time, of course, that doesn’t matter so much. But if you only have five minutes – or two pages – to do it, then you need to adopt a much more rigorous approach.

In the room

There are some excel­lent books (see the recom­mend­a­tions below) on the subject of what to do when you ‘get in the room‘ – i.e. achieve that crucial meeting with the person or people who have the power to ‘green­light’ your project – but most of them can be condensed to a few essen­tial bits of advice:

Know your story inside out. In partic­ular, you should have iden­ti­fied the ‘spine’ of your story, meaning the main storyline, and be thor­oughly familiar with that. This should come across as some­thing you have lived with; ideally, some­thing you eat, drink and breathe.

Be able to answer the ques­tion “why now?” You will almost inev­it­ably be asked the ques­tion: what is it about your idea, your project, that makes it important to get this film made now? This is another way of testing your aware­ness of audi­ence appeal. If you don’t know – or care – who’s going to pay to see your movie, the chances are nobody will.

Be able to answer the ques­tion “why this film?” If your idea is similar to other films that have been made, that’s not neces­sarily a bad thing. Total origin­ality is not only a rare commodity, but it can also actu­ally count against you. But you should be very clear about what makes your film different from all the others. This means that you should, at the very least, be aware of similar movies or movies that belong to the same genre. You don’t need neces­sarily to come across as a total film geek – but try not to appear completely ignorant of the most obvious comparisons.

Most of all, pitching is some­thing that requires prac­tice and becomes easier the more that you do it. It may be terri­fying the first time but after a while, it will still be terri­fying (you’ll just get frac­tion­ally more used to it).

These examples of live pitches from three film students could easily be graded as ‘not so good’, ‘better’, and ‘best’. It’s apparent from looking at them that present­a­tion skills are equally as important as content.

  All film clips can be expanded by clicking the x symbol in the bottom right corner 
Recom­mended reading:

“Selling Your Script in 60 Seconds” by Michael Hauge (Pub: Michael Weise Produc­tions) Detailed prac­tical advice on pitching, including templates.

“The Pitch” by Eileen Quinn (Faber & Faber) Insider tips from an exper­i­enced producer.

Don’t forget to try Bill Meyers Auto­matic Pitch Generator

The Player 1992

Robert Altman’s mischev­ious take on Tinseltown includes this credits sequence where a producer is listening to pitches. Although it’s satir­ical in its tone, it’s a not-that-inaccurate portrayal of the process in which produ­cers are fed ideas – some­times of the dubious variety.

Treat­ment formats

A treat­ment should tell the story clearly but it should not be entirely plot driven. It must retain some of the mood, atmo­sphere and feel as well. The pace is important. It should be single-spaced and written crisply in the present tense. Use dialogue if it helps – but only for colour and sparingly.

The Script­ment

The script­ment is halfway between a script and a treat­ment. It contains samples of dialogue, lists of char­ac­ters and gener­al­ised notes on the mood, atmo­sphere and setting of the story. It can be quite a large docu­ment, some­times as much as 30 pages, so it’s usually only employed by auteur scriptwriters on projects that already have a strong chance of being made. The old Holly­wood studios often developed very detailed treat­ments before going into production.

Someone who frequently uses script­ments is James Cameron ( director of Titanic, Aliens, Spiderman). You can find a sample here.

The Eight Pager

The eight – or twelve – pager is closer to being a synopsis. It’s written in a prose style but employing visual language to preserve its filmic qual­ities. This is one of the hardest formats to write. Ideally, it should read like a short story or novella that grips the reader through its own literary merits but doesn’t get too far away from being a film. Even if you’re adapting your own story from another medium, you have to keep this constantly in mind. A good example of this format can be found in Michael Hauge’s book “Writing Screen­plays That Sell

The Two Pager

The two pager is a fairly recently intro­duced format but has now become quite a common require­ment. It’s tricky because you can’t be as concise as a one-pager (see below) but you haven’t really got the space to expand that much either. I suspect that this format was adopted to reas­sure more ‘busi­ness orient­ated’ exec­ut­ives and produ­cers who increas­ingly run the industry.

One approach is to present your story in a schem­at­ised fashion, using sub-headings: i.e. ‘World of the Story’, ‘Set up and char­ac­ters’, ‘Complic­a­tions’, ‘Resol­u­tion’ etcetera. Be careful not to get too dry with it though.

The One Pager

A one-pager should be in the style of a classic Holly­wood pitch; a verbal trailer where the main idea is to whet the reader’s appetite for more.

The most important thing about it is: it fits on one side of A4. The second most important thing: the fewer words and more white space, the better. It has to create interest in the story but to do this it doesn’t have to tell the whole story. A one-pager is designed to let the reader imagine the project and also indicate who the possible audi­ence might be.

Here’s a tip: if you have a prom­ising idea for a script that you’ve been thinking about for a while, and maybe tinkering with; but you don’t have the time to sit down and work out all the details; it’s a very good idea to try and turn it into a one-pager. Not only will it force you to give it a more definite shape, but it will also provide you with some­thing that you can show to a likely prospect.

You’d be surprised how many careers have been launched by a producer saying to a writer: “What else have you got to show me?”

Treat­ment format examples


Okay, so what’s an outline?

An outline is some­thing used by a writer in the early stages of script devel­op­ment to pin down ideas and get a sense of story structure.

It is a diagnostic docu­ment; written by the writer to help the writer and not usually intended for public consumption.

It can take any form or shape, be any length, and be written on anything from post-it notes to napkins. Some profes­sional writers use big cork­boards to lay it all out like crime invest­ig­a­tion rooms. Others like to have boxes of file-cards. For tech­no­philes, there is special­ised soft­ware you can buy.

However you do it, this is what you create at the plan­ning stage. It needs to be very flexible.

One of the commonest ways of getting to grips with a story is by writing a Step Outline. This means breaking a story down into the steps that make up its basic progres­sion. It’s a useful exer­cise but it’s important to keep it simple. You shouldn’t be thinking yet about scenes, acts or any other struc­tural units. Just concen­trate on the story itself:

Step 1: Goldilocks gets lost in the woods
Step 2: She finds the three bears’ house.
Step 3: She goes into the house and finds it empty … and so on.

Using Plot Points

The steps can be as small or large as you feel comfort­able with. If it feels like too large a task, a vari­ation on this exer­cise is to work out the steps between two plot points (a ‘plot point’ is a signi­ficant ‘land­mark’ in the plot narrative) and focus just on that segment.

For example:

(1) A young girl witnesses the murder of her family. (2) She finds a martial arts master and (3) trains until she is a deadly warrior. (4) She returns and avenges the death of her family.

There are many poten­tial ‘steps’ between each of these plot-points but if we focus just on those between (2) and (3), this might be one possible step progres­sion:

Step 1:  She is rescued from bandits by an old man with amazing sword skills.
Step 2:  She begs the old man to teach her his skills but he refuses because she is female.
Step 3:  She follows the old man and even­tu­ally persuades him to relent … and so on.

Writing an outline is most useful as a first stage in the writing process, the thing you need to do to get everything straight in your head before you proceed to write your treat­ment. Remember, it doesn’t have to be exciting or even read­able to anybody else but you – just so long as it helps you and thus performs the func­tion for which it was intended.

What to read next
For more on writing outlines read the section: Getting to Grips with Your Story

You might also enjoy reading this on Chuck Wendig’s blog: “Ten Stupid Writer’s Tricks That Might Actu­ally Work”


David Clough © 2010

Aliens 1986

James Cameron’s sequel to the ground­breaking Alien has the rare distinc­tion of being as good, if not better, than the original. In the short extract here from his long script­ment, you can see him martial his ideas as both a writer and director; some­times in the form of notes or lists or with snatches of dialogue.

In the draft first script, you can see the same ideas in further devel­op­ment, and the final version (on the clip) shows you where they ended; expos­i­tion that needed dialogue, for example, becomes converted to imagery and action – as in the ‘knife scene’.

Mr and Mrs Smith 2005

This action thriller about a husband and wife who are, unbe­knownst to each other, rival hitmen was a slick vehicle for its stars and relat­ively successful. The treat­ment is what got it made and its slightly unusual format is provided here to show how important it is to try and give a relat­ively old idea (Prizzi’s Honour anyone?) a fresh spin.

The writer has adopted a format based on an expanded version of the schem­atic two-pager style but not as long as an eight-pager and adding quite a bit of analysis and descrip­tion. It is modern – or post-modern – in its approach and ‘industry aware’; selling the concept very much as a market­able product.


  • David, this is very useful — although writers should be aware that there is not a consensus between what consti­tutes a treat­ment, outline and synopsis amongst produ­cers and, to some extent, devel­op­ment people. The best thing for a writer to do “in the room” is estab­lish exactly what the commis­sioning producer is expecting. It is rarely a step-outline, but almost always a selling document.

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