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.
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.
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!