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Outlines and Treatments: Who, What, and How

I’m currently writing my first screenplay in several years. Or, I will be writing said screenplay soon. My producers (one of which is the director and also creator of the initial idea) and I are still stuck on the treatment phase, which will be turned into the executive producers (read: investors) in the next few days. They will then give some notes, okay the basic flow of the story, as well as get a good idea of the scope of the budget for the film itself.

At least they should. This has been a very atypical treatment in general, due in no small part to the amount of details the director wants included in it. Which is why I’m marring these blog pages to examine the amount of details that go into treatments, which work as stand ins for the outlining phase of writing a novel. So here we go.

Firstly, there is no definitive guide to writing a treatment. There are probably as many templates as there are writers, and so what is included as well as their lengths vary from writer to writer and studio to studio. That said, here are a few rules of thumb:

· They generally include the working title, logline, pitch, characters, plot, and any pertinent details. These bits will constitute our Who and What from the title of this post.

· Treatments are also generally rather short (5-10 pages). This is because executives generally don’t care to read (hence hiring readers to condense screenplays for them into coverage). You’re lucky if you get an hour of their time, so keep everything succinct and more of a as a jumping off point for when they invariably offer notes.

To circle back to those inclusions, loglines and pitches might NOT be included. Pertinent details is also project-dependent in that if the city of New Orleans or secret Soviet spy space stations of the 1970s (real thing by the way!) play major roles in your story, you should probably include some facts about them in your treatment. Which is why these details are often left out in more general stories like action-thrillers. So then the individual treatment writer can pick and choose which of these sections to include. But you can damn well be assured that characters and plot are every time.

This is because they NEED to know who the story is about and what those characters do over the course of the story. These are the key components of every story no matter the genre, and no story can exist without a who and what. These are indispensable components to the story and are the mathematical equivalent of an X and Y axis since they are used to chart your story.

Since no one reading this probably needs my advice on how to pitch to execs (I’m terrible at it, which is why I just write the treatment instead of attend pitch meetings), let’s take what we can from screenwriting and apply it to novel writing. In this regard, the screenwriter’s treatment acts like the general outline for the novel. Mind you, this is quite top-down in that there’s an actual plan for said novel, but this is no way as in depth as either a bible or beat treatment, the former being the structure of the world and story while the latter is a rough draft to the rough draft that I use and producers have enjoyed. For a refresher course of what is what:

I always put together an outline before a project, be it a 90 page screenplay or a 1,000+ page book series. This is because the outline/ treatment centers you as to what the project is really about. It gives you that who the story pertains to and what they do over the course of the story. This is usually comprised of 3-4 paragraphs about each character, including their backstory, personality, and arc, and then a 4-5 page synopsis. I usually label the synopsis according to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet and have found that producers appreciate it since it shows them that you’ve put in the effort and uses terms they’re familiar with.

In many ways, this synopsis is a road map. And while I know I’ve abused that metaphor before (and will do so again in my next book on worldbuilding), we should stick to it for a second. Because in many ways this is the old school method of planning a cross-country car trip: You know where you’re starting from and (hopefully) your final destination. You then look at the available highways between them and plot the best possible route.

Now, as everyone knows, the best path is not always the fastest, which is why you need to take your characters into account. They may want to see certain sights along the way or refuse to go certain other routes. This means you’ll need to plan your trip accordingly, but all the plans you’ll make at this stage are big decision types rather than details, e.g. you know you’ll go south on Highway 75 until you then head west on Interstate 20 in Dallas, which will then take you all the way on into New Mexico.

These plans are still just what you’re going to do as opposed to the how, e.g. what city you switch highways on rather than the exit number you’ll take for said exchange. You also probably won’t know exactly where you’re going to stop along the way to eat, and will just assume you’ll stop at an agreeable looking restaurant along the route when you get hungry.

The metaphoric food stops and exits numbers are the granular details you don’t really need when planning your trip, and if you get bogged down trying to figure them all out ahead of time, your nice, succinct treatment that producers will be able to digest suddenly balloons into a confusing mess no one can understand (I’m speaking from experience here). Which is why you must just focus on the who and what in the synopsis and leave the how for the in-depth beat treatment. So, for instance, if in the plot your most loyal character betrays the group, you simply state that he does so instead of laying out why he does it or how exactly he goes about it. Those details don’t pertain to the story at this point: You only need to know who does what so you can discover how during the next stage in planning.

Now this not to say that you can’t plan your route around some granular details. If you know the greatest BBQ joint in the entire southwest is in reach, you can certainly plan your trip around it just as you would bend the plot to incorporate a kickass scene the director is insisting upon because it will play well in the trailer. But it’s best to know all these requirements ahead of time so you don’t have to reroute the entire trip once you’ve started it (again, speaking from experience).

Take inspiration from Radiohead here and keep Everything in its Right Place, especially in the creative outlining phase, and you might just live long enough to work on the rough draft so you can finally figure out the hows.


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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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