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David Simon’s treatment for The Wire provides a perfect example for writing the show-selling treatment. Of particular interest is how it outlines the deeper motifs and themes of the show.
TV is so often looked at as this lesser art with only superficial layers, if any layers at all. But treatments like Simon’s clearly make the case for the intelligent and artistic nature of the best television drama.
The treatment reads almost like a brief analysis of a classic novel. Simon tackles the enduring problems and ideas that great authors have worked with for centuries . He, himself, draws a parallel to Euripides. His choice of subject matter and the aesthetic style in which it is to be portrayed has considerable thought behind it, and with such planning and foresight, it’s no wonder The Wire has been heralded as one of the best series ever on television. It is certainly shows such as this that add to the growing legitimacy of the television medium.
Chinatown is a beautiful snake devouring its own tail.
Jake Gittes, a former L.A policeman, now owns a private detective agency dealing (mainly) with the maritally unfaithful. Among his clients is the beautiful Mrs Mulwray who suspects her husband Hollis is having an affair. He is L.A.’s Chief Engineer in charge of water – an important position in a desert town in the middle of a drought.
Gittes follows Hollis. At first he seems to only be interested in water. Eventually Gittes stumbles upon Hollis’s relationship with a much younger woman - photos of whom soon appear in the tabloids.
The plot turns in on itself, when another (real) Mrs Mulwray (Evelyn) appears at Gittes’ office suing him for slander. Who was the other Mrs Mulray? Before the matter can be resolved, Mulwray is found dead.
Evelyn now hires Gittes to cover for the story of her husband’s affair. Gittes is now intrigued and implicated in a cover up, and continues to investigate in order to find out what he has become involved in.
At this point we meet Lieutenant Luis Escobar – the police officer investigating the death of Mulwray. From him we learn about Gitte’s police officer past – and the difficulties he had solving crime in Chinatown – where connections are oblique and conclusions hard to draw.
Gittes is contacted by Ida Sessions, the actress who originally posed as Mrs Mulray, she phones Gittes to give him a clue about what is going on.
He follows a lead to farmland out west, and discovers there’s a scam going on in which land is being starved of water, and bought cheaply in fake names.
Then Gittes meets Evelyn’s father – her husband’s former business partner, Julian Cross. Cross and Mulwray used to own all the water in L.A.
Cross warns Gittes that his daughter is crazy – and offers him more if he can find the girl Mulray was having an affair with.
Finally, things seem to be coming together when Gittes finds Mulray’s glasses in a small salt water pond at his home. Plainly the man has been drowned.
Gittes summons the police, and confronts Evelyn, who tells him the glasses are not her husband’s. Pressed to explain herself, Evelyn reveals a family secret of incest and cover up. Her husband was not having an affair, but helping her to raise her daughter – who is also her sister – in order to protect her from Cross.
Cross soon turns up, and by the use of his bi-focal glasses, confirms that it is he who has drowned Mulray and disposed of the body – and it is Cross who has engineered this whole situation in order to get access to his (incestuous) daughter / granddaughter.
In a last minute dash – Gittes tries to help Evelyn and her daughter escape, but as fate would have it, all roads lead to Chinatown – where connections are oblique, and conclusions hard to draw. Too late to save Evelyn, Gittes finally understands everything.
TREATMENTS WITH ATTITUDE
by Katherine Way
An outline describes the story you want to tell. A treatment (also known, confusingly, as a step outline, story outline or scene breakdown) shows how you're going to tell it, scene by scene. These are two quite separate stages in story development and it is worth doing both (even if you're not being paid) to work out your story.
Many writers start by writing a combined outline/treatment which focuses on the scenes they really want to write, at the expense of the whole story - so we have four pages devoted to a car chase through Paris or the two lovers meeting in a casino, but the full story and characters are never detailed.
While an outline is probably no more than one or two A4 pages, a treatment will be considerably longer. Writers on THE BILL, for example, start with an outline (called a premise) which is a single paragraph summarising the story. The treatment for a 50-minute BILL episode will be up to ten or a dozen pages.
A treatment can also go through several drafts. A first draft treatment for a feature film might be about six pages; you can then work on this and expand it to 10, 15 or 20 pages, gradually adding details, perhaps starting to write fragments of dialogue - until you're ready to launch into a full script.
The purpose of a treatment is to give the reader a real sense of what it's going to be like to see this piece of drama. It will not just "tell the story" but show in detail how the story unfolds - whose point of view do we follow? What do we discover and when? Who are these characters? Why should we care about them? What is at stake for them? When do we laugh, when do we cry, when are the moments of suspense?
A treatment does not detail literally every scene (e.g., "He opens his car door and gets in.") It shows the important scenes; it will give a real sense of the pace and tone and "rhythm" of the story - lyrical and leisurely, or edgy and action-packed. The theme and what you want to say should all be implicit in a treatment; you should not have to state what this is about or the story's message.
As with outlines (and, indeed, scripts) treatments should not contain lengthy character analyses. If you do include separate character notes (and some production companies specifically ask for this), MAKE SURE that they are consistent with the characters who emerge from a detailed treatment. In the process of writing a good treatment, characters will evolve and you will discover all sorts of things about them that you hadn't realised before. If you've written the character notes first and the treatment second, go back to the character notes and add anything new about the characters that you've discovered since.
A treatment should also not contain complete dialogue scenes or complete conversations - unless it's 20 or 30 pages and it's the version you're writing for yourself, a dry run for the actual script. It can, and probably should, contain the "key lines". Every feature film has these: single sentences that sum up a plot twist, a theme, an attitude, or a character's realisation. These are the lines of dialogue that are remembered from the finished film, that are quoted endlessly and (if the film is successful) pass into movie history. We all remember Rhett Butler's "Quite frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn”, from GONE WITH THE WIND; or Gordon Gecko’s lunch is for wimps from WALL STREET.
Finally, a treatment has to conform to whatever a production company wants. If you are sending your work to a company, or agent, or competition, find out what form they use and follow it exactly. Some companies want 20 pages and some want 10 and some want 4; some want a simple plot synopsis and some don't; some want character notes and others don't. Once you have written the definitive treatment for yourself, you have to be prepared to reshape it to a company's requirements. If you have already written a "definitive" version yourself and know exactly what you are doing with this story and these characters, this will be easier.
An exercise: take a film that you know and love (and have on video), watch it, and then try writing either an outline or a scene-by-scene treatment of it or part of it. You will see how the story works on screen, the choices that the writer, director and producer have made and, above all, you will understand the structure. Take what you learn from this and apply it to your own project.
HOW NOT TO WRITE TREATMENTS
"Lizzie says that Robert has never loved her, or shown her any consideration. She knew that he was having an affair all along. Robert says that that's not true - even though he's been unfaithful many times, it's her he really loves. Lizzie reveals that she is pregnant. Robert asks her if she is sure, and when she knew. She says that she has kept it a secret from him deliberately to see how committed he was to their marriage. Robert then says..."
What are we seeing and hearing while all this is going on? Don't give us ten pages of reported speech. Your revelations should come through action and through what we see on screen - not exclusively from dialogue. A treatment full of "He says" and "she retorts" is a real slog to read - it makes the most exciting scene sound laboured.
“Will sees that the masked gunman is aiming at him. He pulls out a gun and shoots the gunman dead. Going back to his apartment, he finds Laura waiting and they make passionate love in the Jacuzzi. He falls asleep, and wakes up to see that she is trying to steal the diamonds from the safe. He stops her with a kung fu kick and knocks the knife out of her hand. He strangles her and dumps the body in the closet. Then the agents burst through the door with machine guns..."
This is action without insight, plot without character. A high body count will not be dramatic if we know nothing about the characters who are being killed. Blow by blow accounts of fights leave the director and actors no room to be inventive, are quite often impractical and are very, very dull on the page.
"The nervy psychotic British one (Tim Roth if we can get him) has a fight with the big Scottish bouncer (Robbie Coltrane). Then a beautiful, Cameron Diaz-type blonde walks in...."
Remember. You are not the casting director.
"He walks into the room, adjusting his Calvin Klein underpants discreetly inside his Ralph Lauren trousers, and picks up his Bausch & Lomb prescription sunglasses from the shelf."
Or the costume designer.
"As the sound of Bob Dylan's immortal track THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING fills the room..."
Or the composer. Anyway, why do characters always just happen to share the writer’s exact taste in music? And why are you using some other artist’s work to make your audience feel the emotions you want them to feel? You should be doing that, with your characters and your story.
"Wesley, who will turn out later to have been an alien being all along, designed to mimic human behaviour and blend in, pours himself a coffee."
Don’t give away the twist! If were not going to find this out till the end of the film, tell us at the end of the treatment. Major discoveries, revelations, and reversals should be introduced at the point in the treatment when characters and/or audience would encounter them in the film not before. Leave something for us to discover.
"Vanessa, who’s a typical boring City stockbroker."
NEVER describe characters as boring or typical. This suggests that you’re writing a stereotype because you’re too lazy to think up a character (which may well be true, but don’t advertise the fact). Its your job to make sure that none of the characters are boring - if they’re that dull, why would we want to stick around and read about them? Anyway, what IS a typical stockbroker?
"In a homage to Fellini, a fat man comes on with a megaphone and begins directing a film on a beach. Beautiful scantily clad women jump into fountains and have unhappy love affairs with the hero. Then there’s a scene which is just like that great bit in LA DOLCE VITA, you know, when this Christ-like figure floats over the city on a giant crucifix."
You are a writer, not a film buff. Don’t try and recreate someone else’s scenes or rewrite someone else’s script. Write your own.
part of a scene-by-scene treatment (EXAMPLE)
(Act One climax)
RIPLEY seems disturbed by a reading on her computer. She speaks to ASH. The computer has decoded the mysterious transmission - it's not a distress signal. It's a warning. RIPLEY wants to catch up with the team exploring the planet so that she can tell them; ASH says there's no point. If the transmission was a warning, they'll know.
On the crashed alien spaceship, KANE has found a vertical shaft leading down to a vast underground chamber. Excited at this discovery, he gets DALLAS and LAMBERT to lower him into it. At floor level, the chamber is full of a mist of laser particles, protecting a collection of leathery (and apparently inert) egg-shapes. KANE moves away from the bottom of the shaft out of sight of his companions.
He shines his torch on one of the eggs: the tough, leathery skin is translucent and something is moving inside - a formless mass, pulsing, seeming to breathe. Fascinated, KANE bends closer to look. Breathlessly he tells his companions over the radio that they've found life - organic life. As he crouches down to look at the egg, the top of it cracks open and he can see the living mass within. Suddenly, with an unearthly scream, it springs up, covering the faceplate of his helmet, and some acid eats through the plate. The creature covers KANE's face. He stumbles and falls backwards onto the chamber floor.
The winds howl across the surface of the moon. The light is fading. DALLAS and LAMBERT are tiny figures in the bleak landscape, their helmet lights bobbing as they struggle towards the ship. They are carrying KANE on a stretcher.
ASH makes his way down to the inside of the airlock.
RIPLEY is back in radio contact with DALLAS and LAMBERT as they and KANE halt outside the airlock door. LAMBERT, distraught, begs RIPLEY to let them inside - they have to get KANE to the sick bay. RIPLEY asks what has happened. The other two are unsure. "Something has attached itself to his face." Torn between wanting to help KANE and protect her shipmates, RIPLEY refuses to open the airlock door. They'll all have to go into quarantine - that's the rule.
As LAMBERT and DALLAS argue with her, ASH calmly pushes a button. The airlock begins to open. A computerised voice announces to RIPLEY "Inner lock open." and she realises that ASH has let KANE, LAMBERT, DALLAS - and the Alien in.
And so on. This is a very detailed scene-by-scene treatment. A six- to ten-page treatment would not be quite this detailed but it does HAVE to tell the whole story, in the order in which it would unfold on screen. And the aim is to make it sound as suspenseful and exciting as possible!
Notice that you don't have to mark act breaks - they are implicit. Classic film structure is three-act; in a 100-page script Act One would be (roughly) the first 25 pages, Act Two the middle 50 pages and Act Three the last 25 pages. In ALIEN the Act One break is probably Kane being attacked by the Alien and the Act Two break the discovery that Ash is an android and has been protecting the Alien, letting his shipmates die and trying to murder Ripley when she discovers the truth.
And in case you've been wondering what 'a bible' for a hit TV series looks like, check out
THE BIBLE FOR BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA
The premise of Battlestar Galactica—that intelligent machines may, someday in the distant future, wipe out their human creators—is still characterized by some AI scientists as laughably implausible. But many serious thinkers aren't laughing anymore. Due in part to the persistence of researchers at organizations like the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in California and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, which have been analyzing AI risk scenarios over the past decade, the subject of long-term “existential risk” from AI and how to avoid it is now discussed in polite, if nerdy, company. Most experts remain skeptical, but they increasingly at least acknowledge that the issue is complex.
NOW, READ THE BIBLE FOR THE HIT TELEVISION SCI-FI SERIES