Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Writing a Treatment

I have been hired for a new film project, adapting a book for a feature, and that process starts with presenting a treatment.

So I thought I would write how to do that. Cause actually that's a really important skill that no one talks about much.

A treatment is a synopsis of the story. There's no standard length or format, no one tells you what one looks like, but the more screenplays I write the more useful I realise one is.

To producers, they can quickly see what your story is. They can 'get it' from the one line pitch; the treatment shows how the story actually develops.

For you, it means that you have a road map for where you're going before you get bogged down in the nitty gritty of writing. An extra week spent getting a treatment right will save a month later, as you'll spend a lot less time writing things that need to be cut.

Here is how I do a treatment. Like I say, there is nothing 'industry standard' about any of this, but I have been told I'm good at it, and people who have read my treatments have used them as sample documents to show other writers what to do.

Here's an example below - I'm not saying this a great film idea but it is simple, short and forcefully expressed so good to use as an example (it's not something I've sold, please don't rip it off: if you want a script, hire me).

First, write the BLURB - that's basically a selling document. like you'd read on the back of a book. It basically sets up the situation - so it's act one written up in a sexy way with a hint of what is going to happen in act three:


'A petty crook, Owen, is sprung from jail by men he’s never met before. He discovers that he is the illegitimate son of a billionaire - who now urgently needs a liver transplant from a genetic relative. Owen was snatched by the rich guy’s legitimate son - his own half-brother - who wants to steal his liver: an operation which Owen, of course, would not survive.
When Owen escapes, he is pursued by the police as well as this parasitic family. He flees - but has no choice but to turn and fight when his half-brother discovers another genetic match exists: for Owen has a daughter... 

MATCH is a high tension thriller with contemporary resonance, TAKEN meets THE FUGITIVE.'

That it's 'X meets Y in Z' is important to give people an idea of the tone. Nail the genre. And the phrase 'he has to turn and fight' is clearly a reference to what will happen at the end of act two. So just from that paragraph you get the shape of the whole film.

Then you get into the actual treatment, which will be about three or four pages. It's basically a list of beats that you are going to hit. This is quite a dry document, cause it's all mechanics, making it something of a ballache to read (that's why I always precede it with the sexy 'sell the project' stuff). You should divide it into parts, generally -

The reason you do this is because, inevitably, when you write the treatment you will have a good idea of what happens in act one - so that's two pages - then some idea of act two - another two pages - and only a vague idea of what happens in act three - two paragraphs. If you write that down as a stream of text anyone reading it will get a skewed idea of what the film will look like: act one is half your document so they will think that is half of the film. You have to put those markers in so anyone reading it understands the pacing.

Here is how MATCH looks: notice how simple it is. The shorter the better... anything too long just looks bogged down and is dull to read.


OWEN LUCAS is a petty crook. He’s never amounted to much, and now he’s on the slide down: serving a long sentence for burglary. When men break into his jail and spring him, he has no idea why. 

He is knocked out, and wakes in a surgery: where he is watched over by LINCOLN OSBOURNE. Lincoln is the pampered son of billionaire financier, SIFITIS - who is now elderly and ill. If Sifitis does not get a liver transplant from a genetic relative within twenty four hours, he will die. Lincoln is so keen on Owen because Owen is a match: he is Sifitis’s illegitimate son; and Lincoln has worked hard to track him down. 

But Owen’s captors have underestimated him: if he knows one thing, it’s escaping. Owen breaks free. Now he is really in trouble: his determined and well resourced kidnappers want him back, and so do the police: he’s the target of two manhunts. 


Fugitive Owen doesn’t know where to turn. He finds his way to an old girlfriend, LATITIA. He walked out on the woman and their daughter ten years ago. Now he throws herself on her mercy. 

But she’s not impressed: will never forgive him. He meets his daughter - MONICA. Now she’s grown up: she’s sixteen, mixed up, in trouble.  

Monica is not impressed with her father. She knows he is just there to ask for help. He tells them that he has connections abroad - if they can just help him with some money, a place to hide for a while... His entreaties fall on deaf ears: Latitia refuses to help. 

Owen leaves just before the police arrive. They demand to know if she has seen Owen. Latitia says no; but Monica says yes: she feels she owes her absent father no favours. And once more our hero is forced to flee the police. 

Owen goes to see the man he thinks is his father: someone else who he is alienated from - but he has nowhere else to hide. The man reveals why he has never liked Owen: he doesn’t believe that Owen is his. His mother worked as a waitress at a ritzy restaurant, and had a fling with a customer. Owen puts it together, and realises what the bad guys are after. 

Following Owen’s trail, Lincoln tracks Letitia down: and finds out about Monica. He realises that it’s quite possible that Owen’s daughter would also be a match. Lincoln kills Letitia and sets a trap for Monica. Owen finds Monica just in time. 


Now Owen goes on the run with Monica. He has to escape from the police, and from Lincoln; while trying to find some way to relate to the daughter he abandoned. He works on a plan to get them both out of the country. But Monica has her own ideas of justice, and finally gives him up to the police.  

Owen is arrested. But he has time to see: Lincoln snatches his daughter. 


The scene is set for a dynamic climax: Owen has learnt that you cannot keep running. He has built a relationship with his daughter only to see it snatched away. Desperation gives him strength.  

Owen escapes from the police, and tracks down his enemies. There is a clear ticking bomb: as the complex surgical operation is just beginning. Owen tracks his family down, and in an exciting and explosive climax, he rescues his daughter. 

Owen and Monica escape the clutches of the parasitic financiers. 

Lincoln admits to his father that he has failed. Sitifis rams a scalpel into his son’s neck, and orders the surgeons to continue the operation: for Lincoln too, of course, is a match. 

Then I always put a couple of paragraphs of NOTES at the end where I say what interests me about the subject matter and why this story needs to be a film. Maybe something about milieu and contemporary relevance or how it would be cheap to shoot and so on. In this case -


This is the kind of chase thriller that Hitchcock would have loved: a man on the run is hounded by a conspiracy of powerful people; there are high stakes, and an ending that involves saving the girl before a deadline expires - narratively speaking, we are on solid ground. But the emotional heart of the story is the lead character’s arc, specifically, the developing relationship with the daughter he abandoned. 
The villains are despicable and powerful, as villains should be, and, pleasingly, the antagonist and protagonist are shadows of one another: they are brothers, and each is doing his best to save a family member. 
As to the villain’s plan - financiers needing transplants in order to survive and ordinary people suffering as a consequence - not hard to see how that relates, metaphorically, to contemporary realities: I could see audiences really hating those guys.  

Finally, in terms of locale, we have an intriguing contrast been two very different milieus: high finance for glitz and the underworld of petty criminals for grime.

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