Thursday, April 03, 2014

Treating the film treatment as a short story

Why write a film treatment? My introductory screenwriting students at the University of New Hampshire might answer: “Because it’s assigned on the syllabus.” 

To which I would ask, “But why did I assign it?”

“To give us busy work?” one or more of my more cheeky students might reply.

I don’t assign busy work. At least I hope I don’t. In the case of the treatment, I want to help my young writers think beyond the short scripts of our introductory class as they expand their imaginations to the two-hour cinematic story-telling event. (Writing the feature-length script is a one-semester advanced class, which is offered this fall at UNH at Manchester if you’re in the area and interested; new scriptwriters are also invited to attend this class.)

The treatment tells the screen story in a neat, short package, generally 1 to 25 pages. I submit that shorter is better as I want my students to focus on the core of the story, especially their central characters.

Building from the protagonist with a clear do-or-die goal, and the antagonist who opposes the hero with equal force, I want them to think out the major beats of the story. What happens first? What happens after that? And after that? Who else is involved? These are the general questions they need to answer as they proceed to pen a concise summation of their script story.

When I first learned the technique, treatments were described as a dry capturing of the cinematic events that will eventually take place on the screen. Yet, in culling the net for examples to share with my class, I’ve found that treatments are as varied as the authors who write them.

Therefore, I’d like to suggest a short story approach to treatment writing. “Entertain me!” I beg of my students and of anyone who attempts the treatment. And since short stories are my second favorite form to read (behind screenplays), what better way to fashion a dynamic treatment that leaps off the page?

Grab me not with FADE IN, but with a killer opening line. Fashion it around the reason the story begins today. Often films begin with a wedding or funeral because these are dramatic events that rock the protagonist’s world. 

Who is a treatment for? In the case of the dry or step-outline treatment, I’d argue it’s for the writer. Though even this could be used as a sales tool. In this case, the treatment is strictly the spine of the story, or as the Story Merchant writes, “If a screenplay is the blueprint for a film, the treatment is the blueprint for a screenplay.”

While I agree with this logic, I also think that the treatment can be a tool for determining what doesn’t work. In the case of the early treatment for “The Star Wars” (if it is indeed a legit treatment by George Lucas and not just a writerly hoax), one can read how the early treatment differed from the eventual film. In this case the treatment is one in a series of steps toward defining your characters and finding your screen story. (Link thanks to Simply Scripts.)

The treatment can be a selling tool, so why not package it in as entertaining a manner as possible? Again, the short story springs to mind, though if you’re writing the treatment to an epic poem adapted to the screen, you might want to play with cadence and pen your small opus in stanzas.

Why write a film treatment? Because it provides another step toward getting to know your characters and discovering your story. Enjoy the process and write something entertaining. Who knows? You might even get thanked for all your hard work with a movie deal. Or an A.