As I’ve started to burrow my way into the industry, I’ve found that I’ve been spending less time writing screenplays and more time writing treatments/sell-sheets/one-pagers/proposals/series bibles. Usually, these are different labels for a very similar sort of thing.
Although the different names do sort of suggest a different sort of flavour of what this sort of thing (a bible is probably longer than a one pager – though even the latter might be longer than one page!) I haven’t yet found any really consistent expectations about how or what producers are asking for when they ask for a treatment.
Here’s my definition: it is a short document that tells the story of the film or TV series to the producer and exec/producer and network or channel who might want to make it. For a good description, take a look at Danny Stack’s post here.
How do you approach the task? Well, the best advice that I’ve been given is to pretend that you’re excited about a really cool movie or show, and you want to explain it to a friend. You want to get across your passion and the broad strokes of what the idea is, without wanting to go into the details.
- You’ll probably want to explain what the characters are like. Writing treatments is about showing what’s interesting about your film or show. People are most interested in the characters you’re going to create.
- If it’s a TV show, you probably want to give a few ideas of the kind of episodes you’d be likely to see. If it’s a film, you’ll cover off the main story beats.
- It’s also important – particularly if you’re pitching a procedural or genre-piece, but even if you’re doing a character piece – to set out what the rules of the game are. How does the world work? What are the generic conventions that you’ll be dealing with or throwing aside?
- Most importantly of all – you have to try and get an idea of the tone and organising idea of a series down. If its a series about a detective who – I don’t know – solves crimes by hypnosis, then they want to know whether its a comedy, whether its a psychological thriller, whether it’s like LIE TO ME or CRACKER or CASTLE.
- Finally – you need to give them an idea why you are writing it, and why will people want to watch it. What’s the theme, the organising idea, the point?
Writing treatments is not like writing scripts. In many ways, it is the exact opposite of writing a script and sometimes it makes it harder to write them if you have your “script hat” on.
What producers or execs are looking for is not a boiled down version of the series, but how the series can be sold. They’re not interested in what us writers are interested in when we’re creating stories – the intricacies of characters and plot, the way that we get from A to B to C in an interesting and thought-provoking way.
They want to know the trailer. They want to know what they’re going to tell their boss, and what their boss is going to tell marketing. In many ways, treatments are more like a TV Guide article. It answers one question: how are we going to get people to watch this?