Before the First Draft Part 4: The Treatment

Here is a quick recap of the last few weeks:

Series Intro: What you should know before you write

Part 1- Loglines

Part 2 – Brainstorming and Research

Research 101: a little more info

Part 3 – Biographies

So onto Part 4. I am assuming many people reading this already have some rough idea of what a screenplay treatment is. If you don’t, a treatment is essentially your entire script in story-form or prose – in the simplest terms. The page length varies from a single page, four pages to more. This will more than likely not be the final treatment you have at the end if you were to move into selling and then pitching, but it’s certainly something I use to start in order to get some coherent overall idea of my story. The easiest way to start working on this is dividing your idea into three parts – the beginning (act 1), the middle (act 2), and the end (act 3). These are what one would consider the legs of your script – aptly the paradigm as Syd Field puts it, functioning the same way as the legs of a table.

Even though I am not one of those individuals who considers Syd Field’s books the gospel truth about screenwriting (case-in-point – his structural approach with plot points are a bit spare in my opinion. See more info, below), I do find his four-page treatment guideline-approach from ‘The Screenwriter’s Workbook‘ useful to start, in some ways.

half page – opening of story

half page – narrative synopsis of what happens in act 1

half page – dramatic recreation of plot point 1

1 page – four obstacles character confronts in act 2 – four paragraphs

half page – dramatic recreation of plot point 2

half page – narrative synopsis of act 3

half page – ending of story.

That being said, the way I approach writing that first treatment is what I have learnt from my mentor and several other books and resources.

• First, I start by writing three paragraphs, one for each act, focusing on the essence and avoiding details.

• Then in a separate doc, I continue by dividing each act into three parts: beginning-middle-end. At the end of each act, something major usually happens to propel the protagonist and plot into a new dimension.  At the end of Act three, there might also be an additional sequence after the main conflicts have been resolved – this is the Denouement

ACT 1 (1 – 30)             ACT 2 (30 – 90)          ACT 3 (90 – 110)

Beginning:                 Beginning:                 Beginning:

Middle:                       Middle:                      Middle:

End:                            End:                            End:


In terms of content,  the easiest part of the treatment is usually the very beginning, simply because I have already envisioned some kind of jaw-dropping sequence – something major which sets the story in motion. The middle is a little more intimidating – because there’s so many more pages and content there to fill – but again it’s about zoning in on the character’s growth and the conflicts in the story (something that should hopefully happen in the biographies-brainstorming stage). Once I have done this, I usually adapt some of the Syd field approach into my own and let myself go as far as I want. As long as I am gaining ground on my story, I don’t worry about with the length (case in point: a recent treatment ran to thirty-four pages).

So, to summarize, I am not suggesting a specific formula here. However, to avoid forthcoming headaches, I do believe knowing the structure of your story in the early stages is important – and this just happens to be my way of doing it. By the end of my treatment, I have usually nailed a majority of that down. Anyone else with thoughts on this, feel free to give your two cents in comments below. Next chapter: the outline (index cards, beat sheets and all that jazz…)


2 thoughts on “Before the First Draft Part 4: The Treatment

  1. Interesting. This is a slight variation on my approach. I set up plot points, then fill in the blanks between them.

    I find it also helps to work out all the details of your story while still in outline mode, thereby having everything ready to go and saving yourself a lot of extra time when it comes to writing actual pages.

  2. Paul, that’s a great way to do it. I didn’t elaborate much re: plotpoints, but kinda do it the same way in a separate doc, except that I combine everything a bit after and write it in prose format – helps me get into story-mode more, and also sometimes helps me figure out things if I am not sure about all my plot points yet… but yes, your approach works great as well. Thanks for that!

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