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March 2, 2022

How To Write a Film Treatment in 5 Steps: Examples Included

Writing film treatments can be complex. It isn't the same as a synopsis or an outline, though it may serve as each of those. A treatment in the film industry is utilized for a variety of reasons and can be an essential part of the process of developing an idea. So, what is a treatment, how do you write one and why are they important?

What is a treatment in screenwriting?

The film and television industry doesn't have a standard definition of what "treatment" means. For example, if someone asks you for treatment, they could mean a two-page overview or a thirty-page document, basically the script without the dialogue.

However, film treatments are generally defined as a summary of a tv show or film. A treatment should contain all the essential elements of the story, including scenes, themes, and the project's tone. Film treatments can also be referred to as story treatments.

As you approach writing a treatment, for any reason, here are a few tips that will help.

Person typing at computer laid flat on a table.
Being able to write a film treatment is a skill every writer should have

Six critical elements of a film treatment

While each treatment may differ a bit, generally, your treatment should contain:

  • Title of story
  • Name and contact information of the writer
  • Logline
  • Key characters 
  • Summary of the story
  • Additional information about the themes and tone of the projects

Now that you know the generalities let's dive into the details.

Why are film treatments necessary?

Learning how to write a film treatment is essential for the emerging screenwriter. Often, producers and executives want to check out your story before signing a contract with you. Film treatments are an excellent way for you and producers to save time and energy on projects. Thus, being able to write an excellent film treatment could be what stands between securing you a job!

So, how do you write a film treatment?

How to write a film treatment in 5 steps

1. Decide the type of document you're creating

Make sure that you understand your goal in creating the treatment. For example, is it to serve as a pitch document for others? Or is it so you can explore the story you're prepping to write out as a script?

Having a solid sense of the target will help you decide what the treatment will look like. For example, a treatment for others may need to spell out a bit of the feeling or mood that you would otherwise keep in your head. However, a treatment for yourself may not have to be as precise, so long as you understand what you meant when you refer back to it.

2. Decide on the length

Largely determined by the decision mentioned above, knowing the length will help dictate how you write. 

A one or two-page document can be great for producers and execs to get a sense of the project, but it means you'll have to paint pretty broad strokes.

A longer document can get into the details, but of course, it will take longer for others to read. And sometimes those details themselves can get in the way of the purpose of the treatment, where all you'll see is trees but no forest.

Deciding on the length ahead of time can give you a target to aim for. You may be a little off in the end, but that's okay.

3. Don't include everything

There's a reason that the treatment isn't the script. It can't include everything, and it isn't very smart to try. Sometimes this means little bits that will show up in the margins of the scenes getting cut from the treatment, but other times it will mean whole subplots.

When deciding on what to include and what not to include, ask yourself if evaluating is essential to understanding the protagonist's journey. If it's not, it may be best to leave it out of the treatment.

That being said, as you're first drafting your treatment (and yes, I said draft, because just like a script, you will revise this!) when in doubt, include it. So it's easier to trim something out if it's there from the start.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith film treatment excerpt
An excerpt from the film treatment for Mr. & Mrs. Smith

4. Write it in proper prose

I wish I had heard this tip earlier in my career. Once I heard it and started writing all of my treatments this way, I could write them faster, and they were clearer.

Screenwriting format is not proper prose, and while this is helpful for what we do in scripts, it can sometimes feel a bit like the scraps of a language that isn't fully codified. By sticking with correct grammar and syntax and the like with your treatment, your technical writing will have a stable base and allow you to focus on what's crucial in the treatment: the story.

Screenwriting isn't just telling what happens but also how we see (and hear) what happens. A treatment isn't supposed to worry about the latter, which is why writing it in proper prose is a good idea. Additionally, it's easier on readers.

5. Just tell the story

Writing a treatment, regardless of the reason (for you, for others, for fun), can bring up as many problems as writing a script. So, for example, if you think about the treatment as simply telling the story to friends around a campfire, it can help get you out of your head.

The best thing you can do while writing your treatment is to write without the delete key. It is always easier to edit a written document than belabor a blank page.

Write as if you can't look back, just telling the strokes of the story piece-by-piece, and then go back and edit what you need.

BONUS TIP: Don't include dialogue

Feel free to ignore this one, but it's something that I do in my treatments, and since I started doing this, I've found it helpful.

If you include lines of dialogue, even a few, it can start to blur the line between treatment and script. For example, keeping a hard and fast rule of not having a conversation is great to force your brainpower on the story.

That doesn't mean I don't explain the dialogue. But I'll write something like, "Jack explains that he's not there for the money" instead of writing, "Jack says, 'I'm not here for the money!'"

It's a slight difference, but throughout treatment, it helps and forces me to only talk about the dialogue when necessary.

Save that masterful dialogue for the script itself.

Film treatment examples

To help give you more of an idea of what professional film treatments look like, let's take a look at a few different treatments.

Mr & Mrs. Smith

Sinbad

H2O

The Terminator

The Shining

Additional reading: "scriptments"

Scriptments are a hybrid between a treatment and a script. Once they have written their treatment, some writers want to add more information, such as snippets of dialogue. 

Avatar

Spider-man

Battle For the Planet of the Apes

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How To Write a Film Treatment in 5 Steps: Examples Included
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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