The motley lot that we writers are, there’s a pretty massive split in opinions on outlines. Writers either adhere to them or abhor them, and there’s very little middle ground between. Myself, I’m a huge fan of the outline, and always employ at least one before a rough draft. But long before I start an outline, I begin a treatment, which will then hopefully morph into a bible.
Before we tackle our writing bible study, let’s first focus on the treatment, which is basically 8-15 page summation of the script written out in prose rather than the traditional screenwriting format. These started out as basically synopses of the screenplay to show around town and wet some appetites.
It’s a bit of a cliché in the film industry how all execs brag that they’ve read thousands of scripts over their careers. Only just approaching 1,000 myself,* I find this claim somewhat dubious, but it does get across how much everyone in the industry is reading. So that is why the treatment is preferred over the actual screenplay since it lets the exec know if they’re interested in the material without actually having to read 100-120 pages.
So, unlike the outline, which is meant to assist the author write the rough draft, the treatment always has an audience in mind, and therefore is much more enjoyable than the straight synopsis. It proves to the exec that the author actually knows how to write. And one of the ways you can prove this is not just reciting the plot, but focusing on the intended tone, main characters, and the unique setting/ world they inhabit.
Basically the treatment succinctly sums up the pitch of your project, demonstrating what it is about it that sets it apart and will (hopefully) hook the audience. And to me that’s the most important side effect of writing the treatment at the onset of the project: It reminds the author to keep the audience in mind from the very beginning by demonstrating what it is in the story you want the audience to connect with.
My friend Ashish, a very gifted screenwriter and script doctor, summed treatments up wonderfully once: “I was a 10-times outliner. Always shied away from treatments in favour** of outlines. The problem with an outline is that it doesn't help you really feel the story as a story, and I can't send it to people for feedback. It always felt too technical. And treatments can move you in ways that outlines can't.”
Ashish’s treatments differ from mine because there’s no real right way to write them. Personally, my treatments usually run as follows:
Genre – Who is this movie written for? What is the intended audience?
Pitch – What is the core concept, pitch, and hook that will draw this audience in? What makes this script special?
Setting – What sort of world will the characters inhabit? What about it makes their impending adventure special? What are the rules to it, and why would an audience want to visit it themselves?
Synopsis – Usually a 4-5 page single spaced summation of the basic plot. I include the act breaks in there to make it obvious that I’ve put the time and energy into blocking this story out.
Characters – All of the major characters in descending order of importance. The major characters get about a page apiece, and I make sure to include all the info we went into last time when designing our characters. Minor characters get a 1-2 paragraph blurb.
Care to see how this mischievous monster inspired a screenplay?
I’ve included a treatment of a script I wrote a while back in case anyone is interested in seeing one in more depth. I should also point out that treatments work best for standalone stories, while bibles are better for a series, be it television or novels.
The Series Bible
As I’ve mentioned before, television is a much broader canvass than feature films, so it makes sense that their treatments would dwarf those of feature films. Gene Roddenberry’s bible to the original Star Trek was 34 pages and the bible to The Wire is a whopping 79.
I should probably point out here that “bible” is the type with a small-b, as in it’s not the Christian holy book, rather a fairly laid back authoritative book. You know, as laid back as authoritative books go. So everything written in it is not in fact the word of God, rather a strong suggestion of what is meant to take place before production is started. Don’t believe me? In The Wire series bible McNulty is known as McArdle and the first season outline doesn’t at all look like what we ended up seeing on the actual show.
Call me that again, I dare you.
The show bible also goes into much further depth than does the feature treatment, Roddenberry’s making sure to mention all the future technology as well as how the format of each captain’s log should play out. The Wire goes into very specific details of the setting, including how the courthouse looks compared to downtown, as well as to how the weather will affect the story.
So yeah, a bible is IN-DEPTH and is less a pitch document than guideline for the series, which is why I stated earlier that the goal is to turn your treatment into a bible. The treatment is an overview, while the bible, at least to me, is a living document that establishes my world for a television or book series.
And I really believe that a bible is instrumental for starting a book series, if for nothing else, to keep all your thoughts straight as you develop your world. Before I sat down to even start the first outline to book one of Sol’s Harvest, I compiled a 150+ page bible.
Yes, I am aware that 150+ pages is basically a novella and is a pretty daunting task to kick off a series, but as I said, it started out as a much more manageable 30 page treatment that transformed into the bible over the course of my writing.
Initially I had the sections I mentioned before: Genre, Pitch, Setting, Synopsis, and Characters. Once those headings were complete, I then began the subheadings, most of which went under the Setting section.
They included such things as the origin of the world and Sol’s sacrifice that created everything. Then a section on the Weaver and Render dichotomy in their religions. Then the Dobra and Ingios tribes, a history of the nation of Newfield, their civil war, the Mynian cultures to the east, etc.
Just a random smattering of sections by way of example: The Emets and Waer, Blessed by Sol, The Loss of Vradra, Lexicon, Geography, Traitors Brigade Members, The Auld Lands and Their European Equivalents, Dobra Phrases, and Timeline.
I should probably point out that at no time did I intend on all these sections; they sort of sprang up the more I explored my world. One idea would lead to the next, and I used the bible to flesh out my setting so it would feel properly vibrant and authentic before my characters set foot in it.
And this bible remained a living document throughout the writing process, a place to keep all my new rules and plot points, plus new characters and locations as I discovered them. I now have a subheading of minor characters, and every time I create one for the book I make sure to add him/ her to this section, along with their role and basic info including any notes on appearance. Same with all the locations, so when, let’s say, I need to remember where it was where Marta lost part of her ear, I just go to that section and scroll through until I find it. Then, when writing book two I suddenly need to remember what Marta’s cousin Steff’s last name was, I no longer have to rely on memory or search through book one; rather just look up that section in my bible.
And this bible just keeps growing, now 201 pages at the time of writing this post. I’m hoping I can swell it to over 300 by the time I finish book four, that way I can sort of include it as an unofficial book five in the series. At least in terms of page count. And yeah, it is a lot of extra pages, but I find them invaluable when working on an epic series.
So there you go, the difference between a treatment and a bible, and how both can be utilized for a single novel or series of books. Now that I've gotten most of this boring how-to stuff out of the way, I can focus on more interesting things, like what makes a good trilogy. The answer is copious nudity. Obviously.
1. And I should know since I keep a spreadsheet.
2. Please forgive his spelling. It's not his fault that people who speak British English don't know how to spell properly.