12 Feb THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE: TREATMENTS for series and serials.
Over the last few months, via my work with writers at all levels of experience and development and through teaching writers at my workshops, I have found that for a lot of you, the area of treatment writing is the most tricky.
There is some really good advice out there regarding treatment writing, but much of it covers treatments for the feature film industry, with the occasional nod towards the smaller screen. I felt the need then, to write a blog that focuses entirely on that which the Television Industry expects of a treatment.
Here are the key areas to make sure you get right and get in, when writing.
Your treatment must have:
* A MESSAGE
The reason why I have seen so many projects fall by the way side over the years I have spent in development, is because often the treatment does not support the original idea.
The irony here is that the writer in question may have delivered a storming pitch for their embryonic idea during our conversation which may have started with something like ‘what are you working on at the moment?’.
Then, in our follow up meeting (in the words of Frank Sinatra) they ‘go and spoil it all by saying something stupid’. Not, to quote the song; ‘I love you’ (that would put the kibosh on any potential partnership) but more likely something like ‘ this is the treatment for the idea I had. It’s a work in progress, but I wanted you to have the gist of it’.
No. Treatments are not about ‘the gist’. Treatments contain all of the vital elements of your world. Laid out. In a pleasant black and white font. They will be between 4 and 8 pages long and be above all things; easy to read; a linear trestle table of mixed fare, presented clearly, for a potential buyer to see at a glance.
Treatments contain the kernel, the nub, the essence of your idea. They also should contain the extension, the continuation, the development of the idea you first came up with. The centre of this world, in story terms and it’s attendant parts, must be represented here.
The language is simple, but direct. The phrasing is uncomplicated, the tone reflects the subject of your treatment.
You are not writing a shopping list, nor are you constructing a poem. You are not florid, or over flamboyant but you are, in the name of clarity, succinct.
This is not a dry document. This is your potential series or serial distilled to it’s most arresting, alluring components. So it must be not only written with an eye on the visual aspect of your story, (never forget that we are in the business of creating stories for a visual medium) but also contain the element of vision; that is, bring to the table a new way of looking at the world.
The treatment shines a light on the story you present via your own special perspective.
I am not advocating that you re-invent the wheel here. Far from it. I hope your treatment contains a dramatic idea that hits the Zeitgeist and that is in turn, both creatively inspiring and also commercially savvy. We don’t want something too crazy. Just different. In a good way. I know…. it’s not easy.
There are the tried and tested areas that producers love; the medical precinct (or backdrop) the fire fighters, the police procedurals, the murder mystery formats and the period drama serials. There will always be at least one of these dramas in the mix of a commercially viable channel, but within these ‘safe’ areas; there is room for experimentation.
If you are going down the route of the ‘been before’ subject than make rock solid certain it has a angle, a take, a vision that is purely new and purely you.
Often when I am talking telly, the subject of characterisation comes up. It is one of the legs on which the edifice of television drama is built.
Characters inform the world of your treatment. It is through their eyes that ultimately, your audience will see your world.
Avoid at all costs cliche and it goes without saying, two dimensional, stereotypical characters. You are a story teller; you have a narrative vision and you have created these characters to carry your story across more than one episode of drama. I am probably on fairly safe ground then when I say, ensure you have created characters solid and developed enough to carry your story lines.
Characters enact the text (they do things) and they motivate the subtext (they feel, react, and behave accordingly). So give your characters something to do and something to believe in.
In the treatment, each character you create has a job to do in narrative terms. You need to clarify what this journey is for each character and bring a suggestion forward, of what they are going to learn in the process. Tease here. No need to lay it all out. Keep something back. But engage the reader in a guessing game as to what will happen next for your characters.
A treatment containing fabulous, rounded, likeable, unlikeable, engaging characters will always leap off the page. Often it is at this hurdle that treatments fail however.
This is because carefully crafted characters have to do something, learn something, affect something and say something before the treatment will work. In short. There has to be a story.
Well am I stating the obvious here? Probably, but as is the case when I find myself discussing the need for great characters in drama treatments, along comes the sister obvious point; let it have a story.
The hardest part of treatment writing is often the demands a good one makes on your skill in being succinct, pithy and lean when it comes to summing up the idea in an easily digested paragraph.
We call this the logline.
What’s this about? Who is it about? What are the stakes here and How does it end?
This is ‘Full English’; a series I wrote a while back about the world of the Bed and Breakfast.
‘Evelyn Moon makes Boudicca look like Pam Ayers when it comes to fighting the battle of the full house every holiday season. Her bete noir comes from an unlikely source from which not even her Grade II listing can shield her’.
Next you need to nail the structure. And this is where the all import serial element comes in. Make sure you have created enough ‘legs’ in your story, to go the distance of more than one episode.
You may chose to tell your story through the eyes of one character; originally, in series one of ‘Life On Mars’ for example; we saw through Jon Sim’s character, what the world of 1970’s police procedure looked like. Or, you may want to introduce your world through an ensemble cast. For example; Last Tango In Halifax begins with a couple of characters, sending shock waves through their families, or in the case of The Syndicate, Kay Mellor takes us through the process of winning the lottery via her tightly knit group of characters.
Either way, which ever structural route you chose, you must lay this out clearly in your treatment, so a potential producer can see at a glance, how the story unfolds from the first episode to the last.
At treatment stage, it is not necessary to go into beat by story beat of each episode. It is however, important that you show the broad strokes of each episode, taking the narrative from the first through to the last episode.
You can go into more detail for the first episode, but again, try and write this as engagingly as possible. There is nothing as dull in the drama landscape as a treatment that says ‘then she says, then he says, then this happens after that happens’. We don’t want to know this. We do want to know what the main beats are in the episodes you propose to explore and we do want to know how this affects your characters and the main protagonist(s).
A good treatment does not preach but it does leave the reader with a firm message.
What is it you want your potential producer to be thinking about when they have finished reading?
A special treatment leaves a taste in the mouth that the seasoned producer and reader of many treatments, will enjoy savouring for a while.
A story is only as good as what it says about the world. You are presenting in your treatment, your take on a subject matter and describing a world created by you for the purpose. This is a credible, dramatic world of human dynamic and action, but unless you want the reaction to be ‘so what?’ have something to actually say and say it as clearly as you can.
For example, a story about a group of characters winning big money on the lottery turns out to be a salient commentary on how money changes people. (The Syndicate). A Detective Sargent, via his rites of passage experience on a Caribbean Island, discovers never to judge a book by it’s cover and learns to ditch his preconceptions about other cultures (Death In Paradise).
To Sum Up
A typical treatment will have the following components:
THE STORY TABLE.
THE CHARACTER BIOGS
Learn more about the skills necessary to be a writer for television, in my new book: Television Writing: Series. Serials. Soaps out in June 2014. You can pre-order your copy here:
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Happy Treatment Writing!