Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why I love treatments

I've been cranking out pages lately. For one of my super secret projects, I have a really well developed outline which sits next to me as I write. It makes everything easier.

When I started writing screenplays, I would do the index card thing - not sure why, since I never moved the cards around at all. The main reason for using the cards is having the ability to move story pieces around, but I write pretty linearly. Plot Point A causes Plot Point B, so you can't really move things too much in my scripts. Sometimes I'll change where a B story event happens, but that's a little move, not enough to justify index cards. And in the end, I rarely ever even looked at the cards once I started writing.

So a couple of years ago I began to dial back on the cards until I abandoned them completely. Initially I wrote everything out on paper, then transposed it to the cards, then I realized the cards were just an unnecessary extra step. Now I write out a full treatment on paper. The one I'm currently working with is 9 pages long.

I put the treatment next to me, propped up on one of those paper-propper-upper things. And I follow it to the letter. Every time I forget where I was going, all I have to do is look back at the current page, and I'll remember the next step.

I know people always rail against this - I certainly used to as well - as a way to stifle creativity, but to me it's the opposite now. I do most of my creative thinking in the treatment-writing phase. I get to the bottom of the story I'm trying to tell before I have to delve into details and dialogue. It makes the actual writing SO much easier. I don't get overwhelmed with choices as I crank out pages, because I've already made them. The plot is done.

What I do get to play with is dialogue, blocking, and character development. What you can't always know when you're working on a treatment is what the characters' voices will sound like and how they will bounce off each other. Since I don't have to worry about figuring out plot points at this stage, I'm free to let them play with their scenes the way you let a talented actor toy with dialogue.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, write the fuck out of your story before you even begin to write your story. You may be shaking your head thinking there's no way that will work for you, but unless you've ever tried it, you don't know that. I certainly didn't think it worked for me until I had to do it.

That's the other thing. You will have to do it if you ever expect to be employed. You'll have to do it a lot. For no pay. And most likely nobody will ever tell you whether or not they liked it.

So if you don't think you can ever write a detailed treatment first, walk away from screenwriting now. Ain't no way you'll have a career without that ability, not anymore.

My treatment is the reason I was able to crank out 8 pages in an hour this morning. Last writing session I got to 7. I'm so much more productive with a well-constructed treatment. No more wasted days trying to figure out where to go next. I highly recommend it.


  1. I've toyed with the idea of treatments for years. Those who employ 'em love 'em. Maybe it's time to give them a shot.

    In completely unrelated news, I just saw on your profile page you're a fan of Three Days of the Condor. Speaks well to your taste.

  2. Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon average 20 page treatments before they ever launch into their story for all the same reasons you mention. Looks like there's a new girl in town. :)

  3. I'm a big believer in treatments too. (I've got an 8 pager in front of me now.) One of my biggest challenges is knowing when to go from treatment to pages. Start too early and you're stuck with major plot rewrites in the script. But no matter how well endings are constructed in the treatment they always seem to change in the script. How do you make the call?

  4. I tried to do my last script with a lighter, looser treatment... it made the writing process so much more daunting. I wanted to try it out once just to see it, but now, I'm never turning back.

  5. I've also been doing most of the story work at the outline/treatment level the past few scripts and it works better for me too. I spent years in software design and learned early on that that if you invest a significant amount of time in prototyping what the customer thinks they want and show that to them (instead of building it out), you get to change things before you've started coding. And when they're happy with the prototype, then you build it out. Saves a huge amount of time in the end. I think this is the same process. Except the customer is yourself (or your reps, if they get involved at that level).

  6. I've started my last 2 scripts without treatments and now I'm stuck, and writing production has dribbled to about 3 pages a week. Blech! If I ever finish these 2 projects, I'm definitely not starting a new script without a treatment.

  7. These are really interesting responses. I always think it's neat how different people work in such different ways to get to their stories. Thanks for commenting, guys.


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