Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Write a Script Treatment

treatmentScreenwriters have all these steps that we go through before we write a script. We’re the exact opposite of pantsers. But all these stages serve a purpose. I’ve blogged about loglines, beat sheets, outlines, and scene boards. Today, I’ll tell you about treatments.

A treatment is a document used mainly by film screenwriters. It’s longer and more detailed than a pitch (1 paragraph) or a synopsis (1 page), but shorter than a detailed scene-by-scene outline (approx 30 pages), yet it tells the entire story from beginning to end. Treatments range anywhere from 5 to 20 pages.

Why write your whole story in this condensed format? The movie business reason is because producers don’t want to spend an hour and a half reading each full script in the submission pile. They get too many. They’d rather just read a treatment. It saves them time. And yes, they make the decision whether to pass on the script based on the treatment. Maybe that doesn’t seem fair – what if the script is brilliantly written? Here’s what I say to that…

Pretty words do not make a compelling story.

A story should stand on its own. How it’s written can elevate it to greatness, but beautiful writing will never make a mediocre story great.

Fair enough, you say, but why should novelists write treatments? We’re not in the movie business! (At least not until our novels gets optioned.) And I agree with you! I wasn’t going to write a Treatment for my novel either, until I joined a critique group made up of screenwriters…

I’ve been wrestling with a couple WIPs, changing the plot points, re-jigging the theme, and alternating endings, unable to settle on the best way to tell the story. So, because my new critique group understands what a treatment is, I decided to write one based on my novel idea and submit it for feedback. Here’s what I learned during the process:

1)   A Treatment is a campfire story. It’s the oldest beta reader test in the book. If you had to tell your story out loud in five or ten minutes, what parts would you tell? And is the story compelling enough to keep people hanging on your every word, or are they more interested in selecting a tree to pee behind?

2)   Emotions connect a story. When writing an outline, I can easily get sucked into crafting scene after scene of action that moves the plot forward, and forget to detail what my characters feel. But in a treatment you have less time for plot details and it becomes imperative to connect to your audience quickly, and that means pulling on their heartstrings. Whereas an outline is a detailed plot map that shows through action what the character feels, a treatment is more of a character arc with some supporting action. The exact way that a character escapes from prison doesn’t matter as much as how that character feels when they escape and how the escape motivates them to move to the next part of the story.

3)   A Treatment connects the big dots. You don’t have time to go over every little thing or explain too much in a treatment, but you do need to make sure the big plot points make sense. Stripping away all the witty banter and scene setup is a good test to make sure your story moves logically.

4)   The ending test. Because I’ve been having so much trouble with endings, writing a treatment is invaluable. Again, the details of how the plot wraps up isn’t what’s important, it’s how the character’s emotional journey resolves. Action details can change, but where you leave your character is what makes your movie worth producing, er… novel worth publishing!

In summary, because I’m the type of writer who tends to get lost in the details, I found writing a stripped-to-the-bones treatment super useful. I couldn’t hide behind heart-pounding action scenes or mysterious set up; I had to tell the story and just the story and make sure that alone held up. Not surprisingly, I found many places where it didn’t and revised accordingly.

So if you’re having trouble plotting your novel, or if you are feeling like your story has ballooned out of control, try writing a short treatment. It could get you back on track.

Next Up from Heather… A lot of playing with my new kitty. Maybe I’ll blog about how to train your cat not to step on your laptop. Just kidding. I’m going to blog about separating Cheerleaders from Critique Partners.

Form more posts from Heather, click here.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

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