- Speaking of clichés: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW (ie have researched properly). Don’t call something a procedural drama unless it IS actually a procedural and you understand the procedure! Which comes back to WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW and if you don’t know, get to know someone in that world who does. Story will always be stronger when it’s based on proper research. If you don’t know/believe what you are pitching or writing about, why would I?
- Research is not enough. Whilst we’re on the subject of research: historical fact does not a drama make. Historical fact can give you inspiration, a frame on which to hang your story, a world to navigate through, stakes we might be familiar with but, make no mistake, dramatic tension makes a drama. And characters make dramatic tension.
- If the idea’s a comedy, make the treatment funny. Like I said before, treatments can be a dull read, if you’re not careful, because they are about highlighting the mechanics of your world. But a great treatment is a joy to read because the writer has encapsulated the tone of their show in the document. It’s a selling document! Get your reader riled up, make them care or laugh or cry along (whatever emotion is appropriate). With that in mind…
- Mind your language. Bring your story to life for the reader. Don’t write a list of dry plot points and weirdly super-formal language – you are not writing a thesis or a legal contract. Engage with the tone of your show! Maybe weave your plot with some character beats to illustrate why THESE characters in THIS situation are worth your reader’s time. Think about ways to make the read more EXCITING! Add tension using phrases that draw the reader in such as ‘meanwhile’, ‘elsewhere’, ‘later still’ rather than “And then this happens, and then this”. Your characters should laugh, demand, cry so do not report essential dialogue with ‘and then he says, and then she says’ which, unless you are filling in a police report, is duller than a dull thing.
- Have I mentioned, less is most definitely more? If you’ve been asked to submit a treatment to a specific length, that’s what you deliver. Use a regular font and page settings. Do not use a tiny typeface because you cannot distill your idea into an acceptable length. It won’t win you friends or fool the person who has to get a microscope out to read it. It’s pretty rude and most definitely unprofessional. Also, if you can’t tell your story in the allotted length then you have to wonder if you’ve really boiled down your idea into its best form.
- Do not theme your typeface Nothing screams “Green Ink!” quite like a horror idea presented in a Gothic and, let’s face it, impossible to read, typeface. Be kind to our eyes! See also: white writing on black background. Be kind to printer ink! Let your words conjure the drama and not your layout!
- If it works, don’t fix it. By this I mean, some writers get really uptight about whether or not to add casting headshots and mood pictures to their pitch. I’m entirely neutral on this issue. Pictures are nice but the text is the true litmus test. Or Lit Must test. (This is why I don’t write comedy.) Some writers do like to paste pictures of actors next to their characters breakdowns – which can be super helpful or super distracting depending on whom you talk to. If it works for you and you feel a certain actor conjures a quality you are struggling to capture, then I’m not going to advise against it. But just bear in mind that the actors you’ve chosen might not be known to your reader or be so well known they are entirely distracting (“Wait? You’ve got Scarlett Johansson to play the Welsh traffic warden? And Christopher Walken behind a supermarket meat counter? Whatnow?!”) It’s a fiiiine line. S’all I’m sayin.
- Finally, Writing a Killer Treatment is an art form – and as such, needs practice. Like meditation or roller-skating. Some of the most talented writers I know are rubbish at distilling their ideas into a prose document. Annoyingly, some not-so-great writers can be terrific at it. Mostly, producers know this and will try to judge a treatment by the track record of the writer. But it is a skill worth learning properly for a time when you are that writer with a record that’s tracked. If you can master writing a treatment, you’ll spend less time, later in your career, having to convince a producer that you have a solid idea milling about the insides of your skull. Also, dragging it out, kicking and screaming, into the cool light of day means you can actually see what you really have – and also what needs working on. You’ll need your feet firmly under a friendly exec’s table before a treatment on its own will be taken seriously. The harsh reality is that nobody will take a treatment from an unknown writer seriously: concepts, like magic tricks, are ten a’penny and it takes a skilled writer to bring it to life convincingly.
So what magic have you got up YOUR sleeve?