“Nobody Likes Treatments”

“Nobody likes writing treatments.”

Apparently. So I’m told. And I’m inclined to believe it – though in this case I am that nobody: I like treatments.

But I do wonder where this aversion comes from? What have treatments ever done to us (or for us)? And what does this reveal about our current attitude to the creation of a film? I have a few complementary theories:

– The treatment as a selling document: subsequent to the screenplay, exterior to the creative process. Or in other words, a chore.

– The treatment as a vulgarisation of the true work, which is the screenplay. Reducing one hundred pages of screenplay to three pages of stilted prose, or fifteen, or one half, is an offence to your finely-tuned dialogue and concise yet vivid description of the pertinent action.

– the treatment as plan for the screenplay, a dry, mechanical catalogue of plot points

The answer is, I believe, to approach the treatment as a unique act of storytelling. Tell the story as if for the first time. Make it interesting. Forget about the screenplay (for a few moments).

This is an age where everyone in the industry talks of story as if it had a capital ‘S’ and yet so many screenwriters are unwilling to tell their stories in simple narrative prose. Simple narrative prose is good for telling stories, but we have chosen to hide inside the screenplay with its peculiar format, as if screenwriting could only begin with the words: FADE IN.

A screenplay is not a film. Unlike a novel or a poem, or even a theatre script, the screenplay does not function as a work of art. It does not satisfy like a work of art. (I enjoy reading them, but that pleasure it related to the promise of what the screenplay might become, as well as a professional appreciation of technical skill.) It is merely a proposal for a film, a promise, a map – a map of a city yet to be built.

Films don’t need screenplays at all. Once a film has been made, the screenplay is redundant. And they can be made without them. Take a look at the ‘scenarios’ written in the silent era. These aren’t screenplays: they are treatments. Great films came from these documents. However, with the advent of synchronous sound-recording, screenwriting placed increasing emphasis on dialogue – playwrights were hired to provide it – and the format of the modern screenplay began to emerge. Great films have been made with these documents too, but they are not essential.

Admittedly, these days, it’s very difficult to finance a film without one. In this respect, the screenplay is a selling document no less than a treatment. They are both nothing more than promises.


This article was prompted by the tips offered by Charles Harris when promoting his workshop on writing treatments. His advice strikes me as very sensible; his methods supportive. From what I’ve read, I’d recommend the workshop.

I’ve gone off at a tangent, but I would like to make one particular comment regarding these tips.

As a means of getting into the storytelling mode, Harris suggests you begin the treatment with “Once upon a time …”. I’d agree with that. This implies the past tense and there is nothing wrong with using this tense to tell a story in prose. In fact, it is quite natural. However, elsewhere Harris stipulates the use of the present tense. Yes and no. This is the convention in the film industry. Everything on the screen happens in the present tense, or so the argument goes. If your treatment is for industry use, you’ll have to switch to the present. If not, the past tense is better for storytelling (before the story reaches the screen, or before the action is staged in front of a camera). Stick with it.


One response to ““Nobody Likes Treatments”

  1. Hi Richard

    Very interesting article, and thank you for you kind remarks. Yes, you’re right – “once upon a time” is intended to get writers into storytelling mode and remember it’s all about reaching out to the reader.

    And the final treatment should certainly be in the present tense (although interestingly you can read the original treatment Graham Greene wrote for The Third Man, and it’s all in past tense – and the film is none the worse for it! Mind you, that was Graham Greene).

    The important thing is to tell your story and excite the reader. Everything else is ultimately subordinate to that.

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