How to Write a Script Treatment

By: Laura Huie

So, you have an idea for a script and you can’t wait to write it—but how do you make a start?

One of the best things you can do to develop your thoughts is to write a treatment. Writing a treatment will provide you with a way to capture and develop your story idea. Think about that moment when your inspiration first hit you and your story lay before you like a path waiting to be trod. Well, at its heart, that is what a treatment is all about. In around 10 pages you can tell your story in prose – no dialogue required. By breaking down what happens, and who is involved, your treatment can become a great working document for the development of the first draft of your screenplay.

Besides planning your story before writing the script, a treatment can also be a fundamental aid to pitching and communicating your story with the many creative collaborators who will be involved in bringing it to life. A treatment can serve as a starting point to entice executives and producers into reading, developing, or purchasing your idea. You can also use a treatment to get a feel of whether or not your concept has the potential to become a fully-fledged screenplay.

Treatments are powerful tools in the screenwriting world; they can enable different stakeholders to come together around your story idea—from financing to lighting, costume department to marketing.

Having a treatment is a great way to kickstart your story.

But what exactly is a treatment? There are many examples of treatments out there, and they can vary in length, content, and formatting. Fundamentally, it’s an organized summary of a film or television show. Your logline, character descriptions, general synopsis, and themes are outlined in this document.

Read on to learn how to write an effective treatment step-by-step and how it can help your story development.

What Is A Treatment?

A treatment captures important plot points and overarching elements of your stories. In regards to length, it can vary as mentioned previously. For beginners, it’s preferable to stick to 2-5 pages; although, for some, the document can be as long as 10-15 pages total. But as always, writing for film/TV is best kept pithy and concise.

Treatments are an essential part of the development process. Ideally, they’d be no more than 4-5 pages because it can be challenging to see the forest from the trees if a treatment is too long. So short treatments are a great development tool, and it’s only after I’ve written a few drafts of a 4-5 page treatment that I will then go script stage, or ask the writers I work with to go to script stage. In between writing drafts I always return to the 4-5 page treatment and make any necessary changes to get a better overview of how the story is developing. – Stéphanie Joalland, Director.

Additionally, you should approach writing the synopsis of your story for a treatment as prose in the present tense. There is no dialogue or long descriptions. Instead, it is a play-by-play of what happens in your script. You should still include the twists and turns of the plot and maintain your unique sense of voice but don’t get bogged down in too many details.

Primarily, the characters and the plot should be front and center. What is the main story arc being portrayed and who is driving it? Minimize subplots and minor characters as much as possible. Only the bare elements are necessary here.

When I’m making a film, I always ask myself, “How would I tell this story to some friends in a crowded bar?” In other words: “What is the compelling core thread which would hold their attention?” You can also think of this in terms of storytelling around the campfire: how can you tell your story so that no one will get up and go for a pee in the bushes? How do you keep your audience held captive? Writing a treatment can be a great way to distill this core story. Sometimes I record the audio as I tell friends my new film idea—then I transcribe that audio to create the first draft of my treatment. Once it’s refined, I should have something that is both a concise pitch for my film and also a solid guide for myself when it comes time to write the script. If I just dramatize the story beats in my treatment, bringing each moment to life with truth and specificity and resisting the urge to add in extra “filler” (unless it makes the core story even stronger), it tends to turn into a good script. – Sam Baron, Director.

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What Should a Treatment Include?

Although treatments can widely vary, there are a few key sections within the standard format.

  • Title & Writer Name(s)
  • Logline & comparison titles
  • A very short statement as to why this story is important to you as the writer, and why it will be important to the audience.
  • Major characters & a short description of each
  • A general plot synopsis, detailing the overall arc of your story (it’s helpful to use a three-act structure to organize your plot points)
  • If this is a treatment for a TV pilot, also include a short summary of how the story and character arcs will develop over the series to come and in future series.

But still, keep your writing punchy. Overall, a treatment is best kept short and sweet. It’s better not to over-describe specific scenes or provide too much exposition. Maintain the story in the present tense and let the story unfold for the reader.

A treatment is a vital tool in filmmaking and screenwriting, clarifying the story, refining concepts, guiding writing, fostering collaboration, aiding pitching and financing, and saving time. Distill the narrative into essential components, create a focused roadmap, and revise for smooth flow and effective storytelling. I recommend outlining the key story beats and moments in a succinct manner, capturing the essence of each scene or sequence, then revising and editing your treatment to ensure it flows smoothly and effectively conveys your story goals.Thales Corrêa, Director.

Similar to the standard text formatting for a screenplay, use a traditional font like Courier (size 12, single-spaced). Another helpful tip is to break up any long paragraphs. You want to make the treatment scannable and reader-friendly.

4 Key Elements of a Treatment

Title: Whether you have a title or not while writing your treatment, make sure to include one that represents your story as best as possible—whether in regards to the actual story or its tone.

Logline: 1-2 sentences summarizing your overall story. A general formula to follow is Protagonist + Inciting Incident + Protagonist’s Goal + Central Conflict.

Example: Star Wars: A New Hope: When an optimistic farm boy discovers that he has powers, he teams up with other rebel fighters to liberate the galaxy from the sinister forces of the Empire.

Character Descriptions: Keep these to 1-2 sentences max. Plainly state who they are, usually this involves an occupation. Example: Sam Adams: A hard-boiled nanny who’s in charge of a rowdy bunch of rugrats.

Plot Synopsis: This will be the longest and probably most challenging portion of the treatment. Again, hit all of the major beats and don’t get caught in details. Here is the beginning of the plot synopsis for Mr. and Mrs. Smith:

The plot starts with a bang. Literally. An assassin, JIMMY JACKSON, raids an FBI witness hideout. He blasts in, taking out Feds, winding his way straight to the target. Jimmy kills him and heads out, but more Agents flood in—they chase and catch Jimmy red-handed, surrounded by bodies. And we cut from this fairly grisly scene to:

The totally clean, pristine kitchen in a suburban dream—the house in the glass bubble (the one god shakes to watch it snow). It’s the Smith house. They’re sitting down to dinner together, and it’s clear this is a marriage without any life. They sit silent—don’t even look at each other. You can hear the forks scrape the plates. A lot of tension. Then the phone rings. They go to separate rooms to take their calls. It’s their offices—they both have to go into the city for emergencies at work. John says he needs to check inventory (at the plant), and Jane says she needs to fix a downed mainframe (at the office).

Make your writing an experience the reader can engage with, just like you would do with your screenplay. A treatment should provide the reader with an experience of your story, not just the facts.

Always write from a personal perspective, making sure to convey the thing that drew them to the material in the first place. This can be a thematic connection, a personal experience, a certain character…whatever it is that they connect to on a deeper level, which will explain why only they can direct that particular film. This personal connection to the material will not only help guide the artistic approach, but it’ll allow partners to understand what is at the root of the script, in the eyes of the director. Film is a collaborative medium and as directors, one of our main objectives is to be able to communicate effectively with our partners, so taking the time to consciously write about every aspect of the film and why it’s important to them, will guarantee that they find partners who are completely aligned in their vision for the film. – Victoria Rivera, Director.

Learn from others!

Like most things to do with screenwriting, there are always examples you can learn from. To read treatments from a range of award-winning movies visit Simply Scripts.

Get Writing!

Now that you understand how to write a successful treatment, you’ll be able to better understand your concept. Plus, it’ll help you summarize your entire story into as few words as possible which helps when pitching to executives, agents, and producers. Happy writing!

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Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds. 

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