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Screenplay Treatment: What Is It? And 7 Mistakes To Avoid When Writing One

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Sell A Screenplay
June 2, 2015 10 comments
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In this post we’re going to not only clear up some of the confusion surrounding the screenplay treatment.

We’re going to take a look at what a screenplay treatment actually is, and also lay out seven key mistakes we see aspiring screenwriters make when writing them. So, firstly…

Just What Is A Screenplay Treatment?

A screenplay treatment is simply the plot of your story written down in prose form. Not so simply, in Hollywood one person’s synopsis is another one’s treatment is another one’s outline. Although the terms are pretty interchangeable, in general an outline focuses on short bullet point scenes, while a treatment or “synopsis” are more prose focused.

There’s no “correct” length they should be. They can be anything from 5 to 50 pages in length, but most script doctors, including us, suggest writers keep them short and sweet.

Screenwriters generally write script treatments for two reasons:

  • They want to get their story down in prose form before writing the screenplay to make sure it’s working.
  • They’ve been asked by a production company to send in a screenplay treatment for a script they may want to purchase.

If you fall in the first camp, writing down your story before committing to the script is a great way of ironing out plot and character issues. You can then show this short story to friends or family for feedback without them having to read a whole 120 page screenplay.

If you’re in the second camp, congratulations—people are interested in your work. The company will generally tell you how long the treatment should be and any other formatting requirements they may have, but if they don’t, ask them.

A screenplay treatment generally consists of the following:

  • A working title
  • The writer’s name and contact information
  • A logline
  • Introduction to key characters
  • The story in prose form, including all three acts and major turning points

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The 7 Most Common Mistakes We See In Screenplay Treatments

Okay, so now we’re up to speed on what a screenplay treatment actually is, and when you’ll be writing one, let’s take a look at how not to write one.

1. WRITING TOO MUCH DIALOGUE

“Courtney reveals that she is pregnant. Brad asks her if she is sure, and when she knew. She says that she has kept it a secret from him deliberately to see how committed he was to their marriage. Brad then says…”

The problem with this style of writing is that it doesn’t indicate what we’re seeing and hearing. It’s “reported speech” when in fact your revelations should come through action and what we see on screen, not exclusively from dialogue. A treatment full of “she says” and “he retorts” has an uncanny knack of making the most exciting scene labored.

2. DETAILED ACTION SEQUENCES

“Going back to his apartment, Jack finds Sadie trying to steal the diamonds from the safe. He stops her with a kung-fu kick and knocks the knife out of her hand. He strangles her and dumps the body in the closet. Then a SWAT team bursts through the door with machine guns…”

This style of writing is all action, but no insight. It’s plot without character. A high body count won’t be dramatic if we know nothing about the characters being killed. Blow-by-blow accounts of fights leave the director and actors no room to be inventive, are quite often impractical and are uninteresting on the page.

3. CASTING CHARACTERS

“The charming middle-aged guy (Sam Rockwell if we can get him) gets into a fight with the black girl (Beyonce, hopefully). Then a beautiful, Kirsten Dunst-type blonde walks in.”

Naming who you’d like to see in each character role is a big no-go. Leave this for the casting director.

4. GETTING TOO SPECIFIC

“Nick dances manically around the room in his Emporio Armani bathrobe to the James Brown number The Boss.”

Or the costume designer or composer.

5. REVEALING THE TWIST

“Kaitlyn, who will later turn out to have been an alien being all along, designed to mimic human behavior, pours herself a glass of wine.”

If we’re not going to find out until the end of the story that Kaitlyn’s an alien, tell us at the end of the treatment. Major twists and reversals should be introduced at the point in the treatment when characters and / or the audience would encounter them in the film, not before.

6. LAZY CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS

“Vincent, who’s a typical boring Wall Street broker…”

Always avoid describing characters as “typical” or “boring” because it suggests you’re too lazy to think up an interesting character. It’s your job to make sure that none of the characters come across as boring. If they’re that dull, then why would a manager, producer or script doctor want to read about them? Also there’s actually no such thing as a typical Wall Street broker, so just stick to describing the characters as vividly as you can.

7. NAME DROPPING

“Just like in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Joshua has a crisis of conscious and becomes racked by guilt. He goes to see his rabbi, but can’t confess his crime.”

If you’re sending the treatment off to someone in the industry to read, never ever name-check your favorite writers or directors. People want to feel the story’s in the hands of an original talent, not someone who’s reliant on another filmmaker’s vision.

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Avoid these 7 key mistakes when writing your script treatment and you’ll be head and shoulders above the average aspiring screenwriter. Keep it concise. Keep it story focused. And above all keep it entertaining.

Aim to get the story as tight as you can in your screenplay treatment so that any manager, producer or script doctor who reads it knows they’re dealing with a serious screenwriter. Check out our screenplay treatment Story Analysis service if you’d like us to review your story before you start on the script.

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10 Comments
  1. Liz says:

    This is super helpful. I’m going to return to my treatment now and put all this into practice.

  2. Julia Boniface says:

    Thanks guys this was really useful. I’m just trying to write a treatment for my script at the moment.

  3. Brian W says:

    I wrote a script about a man who wants to be a writer but gets writers block and asks for help from God who sends an angel who writes the script for him. Can I send it to you guys? I can’t afford to pay as much as you ask though as I’m out of work at the moment.

  4. Lucie S says:

    Thanks for the information script guys.

  5. Delly says:

    Very helpful.Thank you

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Delly.

  6. I’m in. I am working on getting my email newsletter and send out my first one.

  7. EZECHINYERE EKPO says:

    Your site is a treasure trove!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks so much 🙂

  8. Farzin Youabian says:

    Screenplay ” Restless Time ” Farzin Youabian film . Hi this is Farzin Youabian and thank you for your email . I think the first page it has to be perfect Outline of the movies action and dialogue combind in half and half in my script the log line and synopsis has to click and must be short .Sincerely Yours Farzin Youabian writer and director.

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