How long should my treatment be and how detailed? A tediously practical answer.

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. Einstein

Treatments are smaller models of a larger story that hold all the beats you need to understand the narrative and efficiently render it into a screenplay.  They’re useful, but in my 10 years in the industry, I haven’t heard a definitive answer as to what they look like, nor the specific ways in which they differ from a beat sheet, an outline, a precis, a breakdown, synopsis, etc. Since I couldn’t find an answer, I made up one of my own. It’s not THE answer, but it is AN answer, good as any, better than most. Since it’s a concrete guideline, it is easy to envision and execute, especially if you’re like me, who prefers precisely articulated objectives to vaguely worded generalities.

A treatment runs 12,000 words. It consists of 40 major scenes/beats, each consisting of 300 words. This gives you 12,000 words, enough to envision and solve your story. Like a skirt, it’s long enough to cover the topic, short enough to still be interesting.

Click here to see where the five main members of the Simpsons family are in this picture

Simple is good.  Too many characters, and your point gets lost.

WHY 40 BEATS:
40 is a nice round number, heralded by the popular Save the Cat philosophy, supported by most other gurus and books and anecdotal wisdom. Someday, famed statistician Nate Silver may break down all movies, and discover the average number of scenes is 37 or 42, and then I might change it, but for now, 40 is defensible.

WHY 300 WORDS?
Concrete goals and limits fuel creativity and forces you to write in a disciplined way. Look at Twitter, which converted entire populations of semi-illiterate slackers into prolific writers with it’s iron-clad limit of 140 characters. The joy of twitter is that it’s closed, and finite, and the short length easily fits in a limited attention span.

300 words are more fun to write. When you start a fresh page, it’s an adventure, but by the time you hit page three, the complexity is already daunting. The words become like a labyrinthine puzzle that won’t quite fit together. You begin to dread revising and spellchecking it, which further limits its utility. Overwriting a beat is like telling a story for such a long time that no one can remember how it began. 300 words are easier to revise because they readily fit in our attention span (RAM, mental energy, pick your jargon). It’s nice to think we can hold an entire story in our minds, but its difficult to retain all that information at the level of detail needed to rewrite it. Human focus is limited, trying to conceive of every moment at once feels like trying to examine all of the Bayeux Tapestry through a keyhole. 300 words is easy and fun to endlessly tweak and pick at, without turning your scene idea into an undifferentiated pile of stressful clutter. It forces you to go deeper, not wider. Any fool can fill page after page with hypothetical ideas and potential dialogue, this way trains you to tell as much story in as little space as possible, which, if you think of it, is a microcosm of screenwriting in general.

HOW COMPLETE ARE WE TALKING HERE?
The average screenplay runs from about 18k-23k, based on my laughably unscientific survey I made by running word counts on dozens of professional screenplays. If a screen story can be told in 20,000 words, your average scene is going to be 500 words long. Assuming a 20,000 word script, a 12,000 word treatment is 60 percent of the final product. So concentrate on making your beats solid and minutely detailed, they’re your scenes packed into tight little packages, the entirety of their dramatic information minus all the filler, parentheticals and extraneous choreography that comes in the high gloss final polish of a screenplay. Your treatment should be so complete that even a complete moron could read it and come up with a passable take on the scene (this becomes a much less hypothetical proposition when it’s 2AM, you’re on a deadline, and you need to get to page 99 by morning).

NO REALLY, WHY ARE YOU BEING SUCH A DOGMATIC PEDANT ABOUT THIS?
If you want a limitless freeform tool that can capture a treatment, open a Word document. But you don’t want a bottomless well, you want a series of well-organized containers that hold the component parts of your story. Animators have their storyboards, office workers have their file folders, screenwriters have their beats. 40 exquisitely crafted cups that hold exactly the right amount of words.

The limitations of the system are the kind that fuel creativity. Every romantic comedy is essentially the same, and the happy ending is a market dictate, and yet there are infinite permutations to the genre elements. The limits make productivity achievable. Saying, “I want to write a screenplay” is a vague goal, even “I want to write half of Act One in the next couple days,” is kind of vague. Saying, I need to write 300 words tonight on beat 36 is concrete and achievable. The closed nature of the system allows you an empirical progress bar to chart your progress. If you write 200 words on beat one, you’re 66.6% done with that beat and 1.67 done with the entire treatment. It’s easy to chart and fun to watch your progress ramp up like the XP bar in a video game.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m happy with my system, but I intend to tweak it for years to come. Maybe 350 words is a better word count, maybe 400? I expect I’ll get a fair deal of feedback, and hopefully that feedback will cause me to further refine the process.

Anyway, this is a way to write an outline, not the way, but by faithfully following it you’ll come up with a product that’s at least defensible.  If you come up with a brilliant alteration that makes it work better, great!  Drop me a line, I’d love to know about it.

Coming up next this season on my blog: Integrating my treatment style with Evernote, we drill deeper into the 300 word beats, how to handle alternative versions of scenes, and you’ll see me turn a crappy treatment I wrote in 2007 into a credible piece of writing!

The trouble with treatments.

Bob wants to write a screenplay. He’s smart, he’s creative, and he writes every day. He’s written some mediocre screenplays, but they took a long time to write, even when he had the help of college classes and a kindly professor.

Bob has never been good at outlining. He’s a big picture guy, he finds breaking down his story in granular, minute beats stressful. He likes to jump in and discover the story in the process of writing it.  This is how he learned but he’s hit a writing plateau.   the process of writing the first draft. But this is slow and stressful, and the same gaps in discipline will also hinder his ability to rewrite later. So Bob decides to give it a try.

THE THINKING CAP by Bob Exampleman

1. INT. AD AGENCY — DAY
Meet ANDY, a shy ad man. He doesn’t assert himself, he’s bullied by his boss, he pines for the fair CAROL.

2. EXT. SUBWAY STATION — DAY
Andy goes to the subway, saves an old gypsy, who gives him a ratty hat. Andy throws it away.

3. INT. ANDY’S ROOM — NIGHT
The hat magically flies onto Andy’s head and won’t come off. He begins to have good ideas.

Bob’s outline goes awry. He has a list of cool set pieces, ideas for jokes, ideas for dialogue, character bios, and a storyline that ties Carol to a hang gliding club. It all becomes a bloated, unsorted mess.  Lost Bob wants to start over, but fears losing some valuable bit of work. Soon Bob is paralyzed and he regards his bloated outline with the same dread he has for his cluttered closet or his shoebox of unsorted receipts.

The months tick by and writing the outline becomes as difficult as it was to write a crappy first draft.

+++

Outlines and treatments (I use the term interchangeably) are helpful, but most people toss off a lousy one that’s full of holes and vagaries.  It’ll have non-descriptive lines like, “She tries to make friends with the other kids and fails.” or “He meets her and they hit it off .”

She fails? But why? How? Where? Do the kids ignore her, beat her or spit on her? How does she feel about this? They hit it off right away?  I have no sense of where this takes place, what they bond over, or why it’s supposed to be interesting. Beats like this are a big “screw you” to your future self who’ll be writing the script.

Bad outline homer donut
“Hey future me, figure out something brilliant. Glad I’m not you!”

When people say “write a treatment or outline,” what they’re saying” figure out every major choice and in the script before you type ‘Fade In.'” This sounds tedious, and it is. It’s just as difficult to figure out the meticulous beats that make a story work, as it is to envision the entire script, but it pays huge, huge dividends.  A good treatment is like a set of tracks, if complete, you can steam ahead and render your already-solved story into screenplay form.  If there are gaps, you go off the rails.

Do your future self a favor.  Create an outline that actually helps him write.  Cut the variables.  Solve major plotholes before you write.  Don’t leave yourself imaginary donuts.

Five practical considerations for your next (or first) project

We write scripts to sell, to build our skills, and to get considered for other work. In that spirit I present the following suggestions.

 1. Work in an extant genre

It’s easy to see if a genre script works or not. A thriller thrills, a horror scares, a comedy amuses. Readers can compare genre scripts to other works, but if a script is too original, there’s nothing to compare it to, and it runs the risk of being discarded out of hand.

If you write a comedy and it doesn’t sell, you can show it to some Fox executive who needs to hire someone for THE HANGOVER 6. A script sample that’s a gonzo mix of time travel, werewolves, and jet fighting, or a weirder SYNECDOCHE, NY has much less utility.

 2. The script should illustrate cause and effect/connect the dots.

A script that connects information to what has come before holds a reader’s attention. A bad script expects us to make cognitive leaps:

SCENE ONE: A BOY WETS BED.

SCENE TWO: A HOUSE BURNS.

This (almost) makes sense to me, because a TV show told me there’s a correlation between pyromaniacs and bedwetters. A better script would be more accessible to the portion of the audience who isn’t me.

SCENE ONE: A boy is fascinated by fire.

SCENE TWO: A distracted dad leaves a lighter on the counter.

SCENE THREE: A house burns.

Screenplays illustrate cause and effect. Every action, description, and line of dialogue must advance plot, illustrate the characters, or both. A bad screenplay is loose and arbitrary. A good script is taut and sings with dramatic unity and intention. There’s much that’s subjective about writing, but it’s always a good sign if a script logically hangs together.

 3. Your protagonist should be based on an actual star

You can write a part for young Dustin Hoffman, but barring a time machine, you’re not getting him. Instead, consider movie stars who have successfully carried actual movies in the last year, then tell your story using them. This makes your script immediately more plausible, and vastly increases the chance that your spec script might get made. Just don’t cite your inspiration in your actual script.

 4. The protagonist should have a clear-cut arc.

As noted earlier, arcs are essentially character changes that happen incrementally due to events in the story. Arcs shape the plot, and invests us in the action. Executives and readers are trained to look for arcs and their presence of one is a promising signal that the writer just might know what they’re doing.

 5. Your script should say something about you.

Haikus have 17 syllables, limericks rhyme, and screenplays have their own rules. Much of a script is pro forma: It’s gonna be approximately one hundred ten pages, there will be 4-8 setpieces, the characters will grow and change, and everyone will be impossibly good looking. These requirements don’t leave much room for your original voice, but there’s a tiny, precious spot for it, tiny as a post-it note. The best scripts populate this space with a gorgeous and original voice. Don’t forget to include yours.