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How do I Treat my Treatment?

By Michael Halperin

Question: I have completed my screenplay, but I never wrote a treatment. I met a producer who wants to see a treatment only. Some people say a treatment should be three pages long, some say 12. Any advice?

Michael Halperin, author of 'Writing the Killer Treatment,' responds:

Before starting out on a treatment based on a completed screenplay, you have to ask questions. Does the producer actually want a treatment, or does he want a synopsis of the screenplay? Some producers continue to confuse one with the other. Writers go off and write their treatments and deliver them. Producers wonder how come they have a document, instead of a paragraph.

Assuming this producer understands the difference, you have to determine how long your treatment will run. There is no firm answer. Some treatments run a few pages while others run almost as long as the screenplay itself. A good rule of thumb is 'the shorter the better,' considering that most producers are incredibly busy and might be more receptive to a concise treatment

It's much harder to write a short treatment because you need to express all the feelings, emotions, direction of the story, sense of characters and their relationships in a foreshortened manner.

Outline the beats of the screenplay to give yourself a guide before writing the treatment. Once you have the beats winnowed down to the basics, develop the treatment.

Begin with the story line (the so-called TV Guide-line) that encapsulates your story within one or two exciting sentences. For example, if I wrote the story line for Tolstoy's gigantic tome 'Anna Karenina,' it would read: 'A woman forced into a loveless marriage has a child, falls desperately in love with another man she cannot marry and commits suicide by throwing herself under the wheels of a train.'

Start your treatment with the inciting incident and the protagonist's reaction/relation to it. Write with active verbs and try to avoid inactive verbs (any form of 'to be'). The treatment should hold the reader's interest and move the producer through it very fast. Avoid detail that gets in the way of telling the story. The less written, the less there exists for anyone to shoot it down.

Treatments express story, action, character and plot points. Therefore, almost every paragraph should propel all four of those elements toward a dynamic conclusion.

It may take several rewrites before you're satisfied with the treatment. Hone it; polish it until it bounces off the page with confidence. Never be satisfied with a treatment or a screenplay that's good. It must be the absolute best work you can do in this highly competitive field.

Meet the Author: Michael Halperin

Michael Halperin worked as an Executive Story Consultant for 20th Century Fox Television and on staff with Universal Television. He has written and/or produced numerous television episodes and documentaries, and is the author of Writing the Second Act: Building Conflict and Tension in Your Film Script