Over the summer, I had a job for a broadcaster where I was reading (literally) hundreds of drama treatments in a short space of time. It got me pondering on what makes a good drama treatment stand out from the crowd. How to write a TV treatment and what to include is a thing that often eludes aspiring, and more experienced, writers alike. It’s probably the thing I get asked about the most. Next to where did you get your sparkly jacket from? And do you miss living in London? (Ebay. And no.)
To be clear, mostly, when we refer to treatments in the Land of Telly, we are talking about a prose document designed to sell an idea, initially to a producer and then to a commissioner (one who is, under normal circumstances, already familiar with the writer’s work).
Sometimes treatments are simply the back-up material for a script. Not always necessary but a sketch of how future episodes will play out (with a focus on important character relationships) gives the reader a clearer sense of the series arc and the scale (and focus) of your story-telling.
Treatments can also evolve into a series bible – a detailed file of information which will include information on episodes, character histories and serial arcs etc. These series bibles are used as a production guide on long running shows and soaps. Regularly updated, they are mostly a continuity tool for the writers, directors and newbies in the script department.
Whilst there is not a single specific use for a TV Treatment, the bottom line will always come down to this: anyone reading it should come away with a clear understanding of what your show is about and how it will work. A clear idea of the plot, the setting, the tone, the main characters involved and, most importantly, why THIS project is way more interesting than its rivals.
You will often hear producers say to writers “Yes, but why tell this story now…?” A treatment should go some way to answering that.
Okay, Got that. But what’s in a treatment?
Whilst there are no hard and fast rules, treatments tend to have the following information:
- The Show’s Title – now this might sound entirely obvious and incredibly superficial, but you can go far with a dynamic, hooky title. A strong title is often the first bit of bait to hook the reader’s interest. I can tell you, entire entertainment formats have been built from the title out. Remember, on the EPG (that’s the electronic programme guide on your telly), it will be the headline bit of information aimed at grabbing a curious viewer’s attention, reeling them in to your programme. And, frankly, in a sea of multi-channel, on-demand choices, that’s not to be sniffed at lightly.
- Logline or Strapline – the logline is usually a one or two-sentence summary of your idea. Sounds easy but unless you can sum up your idea in a couple of sentences, there’s a danger your idea will appear too unfocussed. The logline should be engaging and make the reader want to read on. You might also want to add here the kind of show you are pitching: is it comedy half-hours? A 12-part thriller? A returning series? Is it aimed at a particular channel? This is a great place to add that info. You call it a strapline? That’s okay. You say tomato, I say tomato.
- Synopsis – we then get into a deeper summary of your story. This is where you expand on what you’ve summarised so neatly in your logline: what is the world? Who/what is it about? What’s at stake? What’s special about it? What’s your tone? (A little hint here: don’t tell me the tone, make it implicit from the way you write your prose. Is it a thriller? Be thrilling! Funny? Be funny!) The amount of plot information you give here needs a bit of judgement. Does it make sense? Will the information you’ve given us be convincing? For example, it you’re pitching a high-brow, complex political thriller, I’m probably going to need a bit more detail on the turning points of the story than say, a family drama set in a Galway donkey sanctuary where the selling emphasis is likely to be on the unusualness of said donkey sanctuary and the kind of donkey hi-jinx you’ve got going on there.
- Characters – Who are the characters? What do they want? What’s in their way? What are the central relationships you will be focussing on? You might hint at future character arcs: ie Jane is in love with Bob. Bob is married to Mary, Jane’s best friend but Bob is beginning to question his relationship… Can you see where I might be going? Come on, don’t pretend you’re not interested! Character breakdowns need to hook your reader in. They need to jump off the page. Don’t tell me what your characters had for breakfast or what they liked to do as a small child unless it is truly relevant to your story.
- Episodes – Ideally, by the time we get to your episode ideas, the magical story alchemy of your engaging characters lovingly transposed in to their problematic world, will already have set our imaginations (and possibly pulses) racing. Here’s your chance to illustrate the kinds of story you plan on telling across a series – and give us a sense of their shape. Will your show be stand-alone episodes, heavily serialised or somewhere between the two? Will your episodes be action-led? Plot driven? Ambitious in scale? Or is the focus of the your story more intimate and character-led? Perhaps your plan is to use real time or multiple time-lines? Maybe all your stories take place in just one location? Perhaps it’s a multi-stranded family saga sweeping, in a resonating style, across several generations? What shape can we expect? What will we explore across one episode – or, say, eight?
So far, so straightforward, right? Not so fast! Because there are some guidelines you will want to follow if you really want your treatment to stand out from the crowd. In the next post, my 15 Golden Rules to Writing A Killer Treatment. Can you stand the suspense? I know, right? Until next time…