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The Screenwriter’s Dry-Run!

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

A movie screenplay treatment is an expanded form of the synopsis. Whereas the synopsis may not likely exceed five pages, the treatment, scene-by-scene breakdown of the story may cover twelve pages. To that extent a treatment may include short dialogues to detail the necessary narrative.

Synopsis is written before the treatment, followed by the screenplay. This means treatment as expanded form, develops more story elements for eventual writing of the screenplay. This is a standard chain of development, which may differ from writer to writer. Treatment therefore summarizes and expresses the writer’s intentions later in the full screenplay.

What is the purpose of treatment, if the logline and synopsis are sales tools? Treatment may not be necessary, when writing spec screenplay. This is sometimes written as a shoot-off of an existing television show. Therefore a growing writer could write a sample episode to get a writing contract. It is also an unpaid for or non-commissioned screenplay sent out by a writer to interest agents, readers, producers or a studios. A spec screenplay is written hopefully to sell or be presented as writing sample to a buyer or lead to get screenwriting contract.

Though not absolutely necessary, when writing a spec screenplay, a treatment serves as a story concept development between the screenwriter and the producer. It details the story’s brief or synopsis with action and dialogue, explains story plot and always written in the present tense. Sometimes treatments run up to 20pages to enhance producer-screenwriter mutual acceptance of the story in development.

Treatment is indeed the screenwriter’s dry-run outlining of the story structure. It provides refined view of story instead of writing or reading the full screenplay; sometimes above 120pages. It is also used to pitch returning TV series or serial shows; showing how such will be sustained through broadcast quarters or seasons.

Treatment expresses the screenplay story structure in Acts: which must answer the story’s basic questions. It provides answers to, who the main characters are, their needs and wants; which will motivate their interests. How will they make the audience identify with their experiences-love or hate them? Following the traditional Three Act Structure or innovated Four Act Structure the protagonist or main character experience could answer the following questions:

Act 1- What’s the Main Character’s dream or goal?This sets up the world and feel of the movie story. It explains the protagonist and every character’s everyday life. The audience also experiences an Inciting Incidence or moment of incitement. This impacts the story’s the everyday or routine life. This Act also unfolds the conflict, those fueling it and possible risks or benefits that might result. Such risks also called stakes could be emotional or physical.

The Second Act which either causes a direct or indirect confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist among other characters could prove difficult to write. It assembles the protagonist first experience, as soon as he or she decides on following a Call to Action. This results in Crossing a Threshold and meeting Counsellor, Mentor or Guide. It is in Act 2 writers will answer the question, What is the Main Characters Nightmare? This indicates that protagonist will meet opposition from antagonist to prove the efficiency of Mentor’s guidance towards achieving the goal.

Perhaps according to the story’s risks or stakes the protagonist experiences serious emotional or physical threats more than he or she ever thought. Therefore beyond ordinary confrontation and increasing risk, the protagonist actually faces highly risky situation or circumstance on approach to goal set earlier. What then will the Main Character Die for?

A determined protagonist or Main Character will risk anything to reach his or her goal or dream. To that extent the unthinkable could happen; a revelation or new information or pursuit will further drive the story. Obviously split into Act 2a and Act 2b the Second Act must provide answers to ‘What’s the MC’s Dream and What will the MC die for?’ ‘…Nightmare and Death,’ indicate that in Act the antagonist will do anything to stop the protagonist from his or goal.

Act 3- What is the Resolution? This must show how the movie characters escape the many conflicts that arise from risks or stakes set-up in Act 1? Such conflicts were escalated in Acts 2a and Act 2b. What have they become? Where are they at this end of the story? Possibly a hanging question is left to prompt the making of a sequel or follow up. More so for television with possibilities of sustaining episodic broadcasts.

Basically the treatment’s outlining of the plot structure unfolds the locations or scenario, character, activities and dialogue of the screenplay story. This is also achievable through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey; which guides further explanation of the story from the beginning, through the middle and end.

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