Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I must protest this shoddy treatment!

Time to dip into the mailbag again...

Your Royal Bitterness,

I've been reading your blog for advice for quite some time, however, I'm curious what kind of advice you have with regards to a well-polished synopsis. This is usually the first exhibition of a writer's story and I've found very little insight online as to what someone in your position looks for when reading a story in summary. It seems like the pitfall I keep running into is that without any sense of tone, a bare-bones description of a story can sound not just absurd, but kind of silly, especially in genres such as horror or science fiction. Anything you could do to point me in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.



Well Kevin, I assume you're asking about treatments, and I'd venture that the reason you've found little online is that treatments usually represent a very small percentage of what script readers read. If you're an established writer looking to get a buyer for your idea, odds are that if your treatment's looked it it's going to be by people at a higher level than me (a producer or director, for instance.) If you're not established in the industry, then querying with a treatment probably isn't going to get you anywhere. Aside from the rare exception now and then, scripts sell - not treatments and pitches.

Sidebar: Anyone out there know of any cases where a first-timer has made his first sale on a pitch rather than a spec?

But on the occasion that I do have to critique a treatment, I find it does often take a little more imagination. Over the years I think I've developed an innate sense of pacing, but reading the treatment gets a lot easier when the writer denotes the act breaks. This way, I can get a feel for how they're trying to pace the story and can say, "Um, I don't know if you'll be able to cram all this early exposition into the first twenty-five pages, and then there's no way that those next eight paragraphs of description will last for the entire second act."

I'm big on getting the structure right before you start writing the actual script, so I tend to hit hard on pacing, plot points, and the relationship between the main plot and the subplot. I also try to keep an eye on the main character arcs, taking note of how the characters are introduced, on how their actions end up pushing the plot forward, on if they lead the plot or if the plot leads them - and most of all, if there is a clear transformation in the character from the start to finish.

There's always the chance that flaws that aren't evident in the treatment will reveal themselves once the first draft is written. It's equally possible that other problems - lets say, some ham-fisted exposition - will feel more organic when woven into a scene rather than laid bare in a treatment.

At the end of the day, the treatment is the first look at the premise, the story and the character arcs. When I read a treatment, I'm looking to see if all of those (or at least most of them) grab my interest. Even though some scripts might be execution dependant, you can usually tell if a particular story will grab your fancy.

Let me put it this way - don't you make decisions about what movies to see based on little more than short reviews, TV commercials, or trailers - all of which represent a very small percentage of the actual film? It's kind of the same thing with treatments.

Keep the questions coming! Anyone else out there have a question they'd like answered?


  1. Katheryn Bigelow actually pressured Mark Boal into writing The Hurt Locker for her as his first screenplay after hearing his stories, but that's because they were friends and he was a long time professional reporter.

    I would think that by the time you're writing treatments, you already know what you're doing.

  2. My writing partner and I had a meeting with a manager that asked us for treatments on a couple projects we were developing. We tried to write them, but bleh. There's a reason I don't write prose. I'd much rather just write a spec. We never really followed up with that manager (for more reasons than that).

  3. Hey Bitter,

    Thanks for the incite. The reason I asked is I've been told that prior to being lucky enough to have a script actually read, most production companies ask for some kind of short summary or synopsis, not just a logline, but something to filter out all the crap (which apparently hasn't been working). Is that generally not the case? Love the blog as always. Thanks!


  4. Treatments are the devil's own documents. Here in the UK where I'm a full time screen writer, there's no real spec script market so ideas are sold at treatment stage. Anyway, I've written a lot of these buggering things.


    This article probably best explains my loathing of them. Every thing he mentions has happened to me at least once or twice. My advice is, avoid them if you can.

    Anyway Mr Bitter, am enjoying your blog.

  5. @kgmadman - Oops! Didn't realize that was the sort of synopsis you meant! Like a cover letter?

    My advice for the cover letter is to keep it short. One paragraph is good, two paragraphs at most. Hit the main hook and try to work in mentions of what the main character arc or character conflict will be. Think of it like an extended logline. My trick is to imagine what will be written on the back of the DVD and craft the synopsis that way.

  6. If you are sending a synopsis off to someone in order to get them to sign you... then the synopsis should be one big sales pitch. It doesn't have to tell much about the story as long as it gets me excited.

  7. ScriptReader - Awesome, yeah that's pretty much what I gathered but wasn't sure if keeping some elements "mysterious" would seem a little too coy.

    Now as far as the cover letter...I know "gimmicks" generally don't work but honestly, if you got a package and it had gourmet cookies, a bottle of Maker's Mark and some high-class pornography...wouldn't you be inclined to give that letter a second look?

  8. Never send anything edible. We'll assume it's poisoned.