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THE TREATMENT : No Scene That Doesn’t Turn

June 18, 2013

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A TREATMENT may be defined as a prose narrative (five to twenty-five pages long) that presents the characters and events of a proposed script, movie or television series, that allows the reader to enter far enough into the drama to understand the ways in which the story and characters will be treated, including a vivid sense of the characters’ and story’s attitudes and the movement of the emotional energy and its relationship to what the story is about (theme). 

Since most dramatic film and television scripts can be broken down into act-structures (consisting of a series crises, turning points or reversals), your treatment will focus not only on the major turning points of each act but also on the “smaller” turning points and reversals, sequence by sequence, scene by scene, and beat by beat. In other words, you’ll be writing a vivid and dramatic “short story” of the screenplay that will include the pivotal scenes, showing in more detail than a pitch, a sample of what we would actually see and hear.

The narrative proceeds by way of dramatic actions expressed in scenes. It will present a sense of the film’s attitude, as well as the essential progression of action effecting the changes in the characters and their circumstances. Hence, it is essential that the screenwriter, when writing the treatment, makes sure that is contains “no scene that doesn’t turn.” If you find yourself summarizing a scene that is undramatic, conveying only exposition or back story, chances are it’s unnecessary.

Deliver all the back-story and exposition of your story through present-time conflict

And REMEMBER: Get your major character in trouble and then make it worse and worse. Only conflict is interesting. If you want drama – and who doesn’t? – throw the weight of circumstance against your favored character If you can’t figure out where to go next, make the main character’s struggles worse, then you’ll be back on track. And never stops asking yourself: what are the characters fighting for?

Write about what you know (your tribe or tribes), using some interesting expertise you already have— scuba diving, butterfly collecting, playing rugby, being in the Army, losing a parent, etc. —or write about what you don’t know, making yourself an expert in whatever subject you want to write about by first finding a way of getting yourself initiated into the tribe or tribes whose story you‘re interested in (this used to be called research, but the term is a bad one. If you define research as looking something up on the web, it’s not enough.)  If you’re writing a story about a fireman who almost perishes in the World Trade Center and you’ve never been to New York City, you may want to write about something closer to your own experience or take several trips to New York to interview firemen who survived the attacks of 9/11. Authenticity is everything.

Have the story’s conflicts arise from character choice rather than cooked-up “plot points,” accidents or coincidences. (If you’re going to end your script with a man in a wheel chair and a puppy in his lap being run over by a train, set it up, and just keep in mind that such an ending is most appropriate for a comedy.) Likewise, resist the temptation to kill off your main character. It’s hard for a story to go on with a major character dead, unless you’re writing Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty all over again. The best approach is to force your major point- of-view character to make difficult, almost impossible, choices at each turn, especially wrong choices, and then let the consequences of those choices play out like dominoes falling.

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