A treatment can be a useful document to have, whether you’re looking to use it as a roadmap of your story before writing or as a way to build interest in a spec script.
Unfortunately there’s rarely any specific agreement on how to lay out a treatment for industry consumption. Worse, many mix up “treatment” and “synopsis”, essentially using them interchangeably.
If you’re looking to put together a treatment, or a synopsis, here’s a few simple details to help you put the document together, based on my experiences as a reader at Raindance. The guidance below works for either type of document.
Synopsis or Treatment?
There’s a simple rule of thumb here. For a synopsis, try to stay to one page. For a treatment, shorter is always better. Aim for a maximum of five pages, ten if you must. Don’t go over ten pages though.
- Synopsis: 1 page
- Treatment: 5 pages. 10 pages maximum
There’s no particular right or wrong here, with writers often having their own preferences that suit their writing style.
As a broad guide, stick to easy to read fonts – I’d avoid Courier and go with the likes of Arial or Verdana – and a reasonable font size.
You can single or double space the text depending on preference but it can often be better to go single spaced if you want to avoid suggestions the narrative lacks enough content to sustain the run time. The only spacing that’s really needed is a blank line between paragraphs.
- Use easy to read fonts, reasonable font sizes
- Single spacing is recommended
- Leave a line between paragraphs
It’s fine to put your contact details at either the beginning or end of the document. The title and your name is a must at the beginning. The genre is optional. Avoid going overboard with the title text font. The more you dress up the document the more it looks like you’re trying to mask its shortcomings.
For the same reason, I’d recommend avoiding imagery.
- Title and your name at the top of the document
- Genre is optional
- Don’t go too fancy with the title text design – it gives the wrong impression
- Your name and contact details can either go at the beginning or end of the document
The other thing to keep in mind is additional details in the headers and footers. For me, it’s essential to have something that identifies the document on each page. If it gets printed out and then dropped on the floor with a clutch of similarly competing files, you want putting the pages back together to be as easy as possible.
The name of the project and writer is good. With your name it can either be your full name or just your surname. Contact details too, but don’t go overboard. Stick to an email address or phone number, never an address. And avoid daft email addresses or ones that give the impression you’re trying to present yourself as more than you are. There’s nothing worse than getting a document that tries to pass the writer off as a big production company.
- Project and writer’s name in the header/footer
- Email address is best for contact. Phone is acceptable. No postal addresses
- Avoid contact details that try to imply you’re more than you are
- Always include page numbers
How you lay out the text for a synopsis or treatment really comes down to personal preference. What works for one writer, or particular story, won’t necessarily work for another. There are a few useful starting points that are worth keeping in mind as a way to develop your own approach to the document though.
There’s a lot of conjecture about the three act structure but many in the industry still have it ingrained in them. You can actually use this to help with the document you’re putting together.
For a synopsis break your story into four paragraphs. The first is the opening act. The second leads up to the midpoint. The third takes us to the end of the second act. The fourth closes out the story. Aim to have each paragraph the same length.
Even if you don’t prescribe to the three act structure, this approaches works to give the narrative a good shape. It gives the feel of a story that will hit the expectations of structure, with each paragraph ending on a natural ‘cliffhanger’ that leads to the next. And by sticking to similar lengths, you’re following the general rhythm of many screenplays that have a second act roughly twice the length of the acts either side of it.
For a treatment, just substitute paragraphs for pages. Page one gets the story to the end of the first act. Page two gets to the midpoint before page three goes to the end of the act. Page four carries the story to the end. Again, it gives a subliminal sense of progression and rhythm to the reader that works in the story’s favour.
- Synopsis: four paragraphs of equal length: one for the beginning, two for the middle, one for the end
- Treatment: four pages: one for the beginning, two for the middle, and one for the end
- Use the end of the second paragraph/page for the midpoint of the story
Writing the Content
For the actual writing, there’s a balancing act required. You want the reader to be aware this is intended as a film or TV show, and you want it to be engaging enough to keep their attention. To do that you want to aim for a document that is visual and looks and feels like a short story, but follows some of the typical rules of a screenwriting.
You don’t need chapters, nor scene headers. Speech is best left out unless it is essential to conveying something to the reader. Common screenwriting rules like not including a character’s thoughts and not mentioning anything that’s not reacted to on screen are also important to keep in mind.
The primary key to a strong treatment (or synopsis) is hitting the high notes of the story. If you were trying to convince someone to watch it, what scenes would you talk about to pull them in?
When creating the treatment for the original draft of Deadly Virtues (then titled Dirty Weekend), the focus was on the torment the husband and wife suffer and the impact the stranger’s presence has on their relationship. I mentioned the husband being tied up in the tub, the wife being forced to dress up for the stranger and the fact she started to respond to his attention. I didn’t discuss their jobs, or the condition of their home. I mentioned the presence of a child’s room, but never explained where the child was during the course of the story. By not mentioning that, I knew the reader would feel compelled to seek out the answer.
- Write the treatment/synopsis like you’re writing a short story
- Be visual
- Don’t leave out the ending – the reader needs the complete story
- Avoid using speech unless essential to understanding the narrative
- Stick to the highlights of the story
- Don’t mention anything you wouldn’t mention in the screenplay: thoughts, smells…
The other point to keep in mind is the importance of conveying genre. Yes it is fine to note the genre in the basic information, but even better is to give the reader a feel for the genre of the story when they’re reading the document. If your narrative is a children’s film, write with a sense of wide-eyed wonder. If you’re presenting a horror, make sure that the reader can feel the dread the characters would feel.
Going back to Deadly Virtues for a moment, the story is intended to be uncomfortable. My aim with the treatment was to craft a sense of dread and discomfort for the reader. I wanted them to feel compelled to check the chain was on the door, to feel paranoid about who might have their address.
Through the style of writing, and the moments I chose to reveal as the story unfolded, the intent was to craft a document that would put the reader on edge.
- Write to the genre the story is set in
Whether you want to get the reader laughing, cringing or checking over their shoulder, the aim of a great treatment is to capture the essence of the story, and the feel of the genre. You’re trying to tell a great story, the kind of page-turner that the reader doesn’t want to put down until they reach the very last word and find out how it all ends.
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