You are a writer with great ideas. You’ve had a brilliant one which has to be for television – there’s a series here you know it, but the sheer weight of the story, the abundance of characters, the complexity of this world you are creating is overwhelming.
There’s so much going on here: the characters, the world they live in, the story itself and are you actually saying something that people will want to engage with? How do you highlight the bits that are working in your tv idea and those that aren’t? Is there enough story? What are you actually trying to say? How do you control all these elements?
I have worked with many, many writers throughout my career, as a Script Editor on EastEnders, amongst other great long runners and then as a Producer of Holby City and other popular series formats. Now, I work with writers one on one via my Script Consultancy. Writers come to me not only to help fix the script they’re stuck on, but to also raise the bar of their writing in general. And often, the first thing I talk to my writers about is the Treatment of their idea.
This is where it all starts for me. Television writing is all about structure and I blog about this a lot. The Treatment is your way in to the structure of your television idea. Writing a good one, will free up your mind to really see where the strengths of this idea are and where you need to dig down deeper. The format I have created from working over the years with writers in the series format, basically cuts through all the unnecessary stuff you may read on the Internet about what a Treatment should contain, and shows you exactly what Producers will be looking for, and want to read, in a Treatment. I can say this with some confidence – I was one.
We Producers don’t like to read masses of material. We don’t necessarily hanker after clever pictures or packaging of any sort. We ask for each page to count and for there to be not many of those.
The Treatments I help my writers write are all under 10 pages. Any more and we are getting into short film territory and that is not where Producers of tv want to be. Remember – we are cash rich but time poor. Do not write a word unless it holds its weight.
I write about this and lots of other writing related things in my book Writing for Television Series, Serials and Soaps but I will add the condensed elements of what makes a great Treatment and how to write one here.
Here is my easy to assimilate, Go To approach to writing the definitive tv Treatment. Follow this. You won’t go wrong.
Make yours really sell your idea by being the best you can make it.
My favourite titles? ‘Fleabag’. ‘Halt and Catch Fire’. Sometimes it’s better that the title describes what’s in the tin, so to speak eg: ‘The Bodyguard’ or, to take an example of a show for CITV that I Produced; ‘My Dad’s A Boring Nerd’.
These are the definitions that describe my working day and most of my television career in drama production.
Series: A drama that is open ended. A core cast of returning characters. The backdrop remains the same and is returned to each week. This is also called ‘the precinct’. There may be several stories per episode which are resolved, but the series storyline, that which is carried by the core returning cast, remains open.
For example: ‘Call The Midwife’ ‘Coronation Street’ ‘Downton Abbey’ ‘The Unforgotten’ ‘Holby City’.
Serial: A drama of more than two parts with a strong serial element. A core cast of returning characters and an over arching storyline, but in this case the storyline is ultimately resolved. For example: ‘Shetland’ ‘Doctor Foster’ ‘My Big Fat Teenage Diary’ ‘Peaky Blinders’ ‘The Unforgotten’.
Here in your treatment you state how long your series or serial is x 3/4/6/8 parts or is it a series of 13 or more parts?
In a small paragraph; a cluster of lines 3 – 6 maximum (otherwise it’s a pitch paragraph, not a logline!) summarise your idea as succinctly and entertainingly as you can. You need to convey the main narrative here – the set up, the jeopardy or challenge for your protagonist and to give a sense of style and tone by the way you word this. It’s hard to do but essential. This is what your Producer/Commissioner will keep referring to in your conversation about the drama and its future development.
ONE PARAGRAPH OF TASTY DESCRIPTION SETTING OUT THE WORLD:
Here the job is to be as descriptive and evocative as possible. Imagine you are telling your friend about a film you have just seen that truly made an impact on you. You need to entice them into the storyline, to make them want to see it too.
Use your visual brain and set out some key moments – they need not be the first ones seen in the first scene of your pilot – but they could be ‘set pieces’ or significant moments in your story for your main character. Visualise and describe for us what is going on. Draw us in.
Make these as tasty as you can. I like to add a quotation relating to each character under their name; the sort of thing they are most likely to say or something that alludes to their particular storyline. For example; in a treatment I wrote, ostensibly about the Eternal Quest For Mr Right and entitled ‘A Man For All Seasons’ (I did not square this with the estate of Robert Bolt but, if it had been commissioned I would have had to do a rethink) I created a character called Plum. Her quotation was ‘Plum is looking for a man she can spar with; so far, she has only dated a man that shops there’. In each character biography, give a suggestion of the arc of their storyline across the number of episodes, or across the span of the script you are intending to write. Make these people live on the page.
Be exact and succinct in your language; avoid ‘then she said, then he said’ (which is oxygen sucking for anyone to read). Give only the thrust of the A storyline (or the main story line) with the smaller B and C’s threading in between. The broad stroke is necessary here, not the detail.
The reason these are here in the treatment, is to prove to a prospective buyer/producer that your idea really does fill the slots you say you are aiming for. So if there are 3 parts or 8, a producer will be looking at whether there is enough story material to go the distance. You need to give an impression of plenty but avoid tedious details.
MAIN STORY ARCS:
Each character has a journey and here you outline what that is in story terms. Again, pithy evocative language is what we are looking for.
Every moment a character exists on screen is a moment weighted with both subtext and text. Get their story down here for your Commissioner/Producer to see in an easily accessible way.
EPISODE ONE – THE BREAK DOWN:
Increasingly in conversation with my Producer friends, I hear the need for more story clarity in Treatments. So I have added another element of my Treatment Template to include the Pilot (ep 1) breakdown. This is a good corner-cutter for you because once you have blocked this out, it will be a much easier transition from Treatment to Pilot. But be warned, do not go into too much detail here. Set the scene of each story beat; a paragraph denotes a scene; get all the jump off points in, and the climatic midpoints of your story lines and of course the ending of the pilot but do not go into dialogue or extraneous set ups. Remember – keep the story ball rolling.
THE CENTRAL MESSAGE:
This will most likely be alluded to in your logline, but here you can extrapolate a bit more and dig a bit deeper. What do you want your audience to come away thinking having spent time with your drama? What is it you are saying about the world and your characters? What is the macro message to be gleaned from diving, as we have done here, in your treatment, into the micro world of your drama?
Throughout the writing of your treatment you must also pay attention to the style and tone of your writing and as much as possible, evoke for your reader the flavour of what they will ultimately be seeing on screen.
TREATMENTS ARE THE ENCAPSULATION OF ALL OF YOUR BEST IDEAS.
THERE IS A FORMULA TO WRITING GOOD TREATMENTS.
ART AND ARTIFICE COMBINE IN THE WRITING OF REALLY GOOD TREATMENTS
Treatments vary in length – it depends on what your project really demands. But generally, rule of thumb, a treatment is no less than 4 pages and now more than 10. The key here is to get all the information down, as interestingly as possible, as economically as possible, with as much clarity as possible and not to over write.
You make each word, each sentence, each image, each page, count.
condensed and forcible, terse.
As much as possible and consistently throughout the writing of your treatment you need to be succinct, to the point, pithy not verbose.
No need to describe the environment as though you are writing a novel – in fact – this is totally frowned upon in screenwriting so here, in treatment writing, adopt the same economy of style.
Only the most pertinent information about your world, your characters, and your story line (at this stage of the project’s development) is necessary.
HOW TO APPROACH TREATMENT WRITING:
Like a time strapped, impatient Journalist….
With a week to live…….
EXPLORE YOUR WORLD IN PROSE:
The only time I believe detailed description is necessary or welcome in Treatment Writing is when you are writing your descriptive paragraph; that part of the treatment where you want to set out the world as you see it; to draw a pen portrait of the environment you ‘see’, on the page.
BRING IN THE VISUAL:
The world of television is visual – so enjoy being visual and bring in to your treatment images that help aid and describe the world and the tone of the world, in which your characters live.
ENJOY THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE:
Try to be as expressive as you can in as few words as you can. That is the key. So you need to be eclectic and imaginative with your use of the English Language. A Thesaurus is a good tool here. Spread your vocab wings and enjoy yourself!
HONE THE TONE:
Tone is very important in treatment writing. Full English is clearly a light hearted with an edge character driven piece. But if I were writing a treatment for a Medical series, I would adopt a totally different tone in the writing. It would not be wry or heightened. The tone would have a cleaner, neater, harder edge. Less frilly. More to the point. Clinical. You need to be able to adopt different writing styles to portray your various worlds.
BUILD THE TREATMENT AROUND CHARACTER:
Make sure your characters are as interesting and rounded as you can make them on the page.
In a treatment, they carry the colour, the texture of the document. Commissioners will be looking very carefully at this part of your treatment. It is on the attraction/engagement of your characters that a further interest will be expressed. But you need to back up your character biographies with a suggestion of their story arc, so the Commissioner can already feel early on, that this idea will take them further than one episode.
So you need also to….
BUILD IT AROUND PLOT:
Here your main story arcs come into play. So I am now looking for you to give me a suggestion, in broad strokes only, of where your story lines will take us over the general arc of your series or serial.
When you write your episode outline in your treatment, do not go into too much detail. I am looking for flavour, for tone and for enough story lines for me to feel the idea has ‘legs’.
DON’T FORGET THE SUBTEXT.
In your character biographies, I am looking also for SUBTEXT as well as the suggested arc of their story line which is the TEXT. Subtext will drive your narrative so I need to see here, what it is that drives or motivates, what it is that pushes your characters through the narrative, over your various episodes.
Once you’ve nailed the Treatment, you can go with confidence to the next level – THE PILOT. Here I show you how to approach it in my blog below…..
Do you want to develop your television writing craft with me? I am a tv drama producer and script editor with 25+years experience in the industry. Take one of my specially designed DEVELOPMENT PACKAGES and let me bring your writing game up several notches.