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Tools Of the Trade

Treatments and Synopses explained. Novice writers: start here.

By Paul Fitzsimons

The treatment is a detailed summary of a film or TV series. It lays out all the key elements of the project, including a comprehensive outline of the story and introduction to the characters, world, genre and tone.

When we’re writing our movies and TV dramas, the treatment is a vital tool in bringing the project to market, to selling it to the industry. It will be used to pitch to production companies, broadcasters and Video-On-Demand platforms, and it makes up an important component of funding applications.

As it will also likely help us write the script, it would be beneficial to focus on the treatment early in the project’s development.

When designing our treatment, it’s important to remember that each section should make the reader want to read the next. In other words:

• The cover-page should make the reader want to read the log-line.
• The log-line should make the reader want to read the synopsis.
• The synopsis should make the reader want to read the outline.
• The outline should make the reader want to read the script.

Let’s talk about what goes into a treatment.
The first element is the cover-page. This may seem like the most obvious of obvious statements but you’d be surprised by how many treatments don’t have one, leaving the reader with no idea who wrote the project, whether it’s a film or TV Drama, how to contact the writer and, sometimes, even the name of the thing. So it’s important to include a page dedicated to providing this information.
The cover-page should include the following information:

• Project Title (Ideally in UPPERCASE)
• Platform (e.g. Feature Film, 6×1 hour TV Drama)
• Genre (e.g. Crime, Comedy, Science Fiction)
• Written by (The name of the writer or writers of the project)
• Based On (if the project is based on, for example, an existing novel, stage play or blog)
• Contact Details (email address and mobile phone number, or agent’s details)

We can also include a tag-line or image on the title page, if we think it encapsulates the story or its tone. (Keep in mind that an image obtained online might be subject to copyright and we might need to pay the image owner for its use.)

This information, in particular the project title, platform and genre, will let the reader know if they are interested in reading on.

Logline

The first two lines of the treatment should be dedicated to a snappy and compelling log-line, one that will introduce the reader to the story and the principal characters. Read the Toolbox Article about creating log-lines here.

Synopsis

The first page (or, at the very most, two pages) should be a synopsis of the story. The brevity of a synopsis will give the reader quick access to the full story and will tell them to decide if they want to read the significantly longer story-outline. Read the Toolbox Article about creating the synopsis here.

Story Outline

This will be the most expansive telling of the story and will take up the bulk of the treatment. The reader will likely only read it if they have been attracted by the title-page, log-line and synopsis.
The outline should ideally be around 6 pages (around 2000 words), certainly no less than 4. It should also be no longer than 8 pages – however compelling your story is, the reader’s eyes will glaze over and they will start thinking about lunch if the outline is too long. This applies, whether it’s a 90-minute romcom, a 3-hour historical epic or anything in-between.

For TV Drama, the story-outline should also be between 4 and 8 pages, aiming for around 6. So for a 4-episode miniseries, we can go into more detail and, for a 22-episode series, more brevity will be needed.

The outline should be paced in line with the pace of the story. So if the inciting incident happens at the start of the film or series, it should appear at the start of the outline. And if an important event happens two thirds of the way through, that’s where it gets mentioned in the outline.

Like the synopsis, the story outline should include the conclusion and any twist ending. Producers / financiers / commissioners want to be able to see in the treatment that the story has a satisfactory ending before they will read a 120-page script.

The outline includes all major events and themes of the story and introduces the main characters and their personalities. It should also evoke the same emotions as the script – if the film is a horror, the reader should be scared reading the outline.

TV drama story outlines should be structured to show episode-breaks and should include episode cliffhangers. If there is a season cliffhanger, this should also be mentioned. It would also be beneficial to include a paragraph about subsequent seasons, to show that we have given thought to the show’s returnability.

Character Biographies

The reader needs to care about the people if they are to be interested in the plot. So we will need to provide some background of the characters. This will include major and relevant elements and events in their lives, not their life-stories. It will also include any physical attributes that are relevant to the story. The reader doesn’t need to know that the hero has blond hair and blue eyes unless this somehow impacts the story.

The biographies can also mention relationships with other characters in the story. If, for example, two of the characters are mother and daughter, it might be worth mentioning what kind of relationship they have.

This section should be approximately a page (300-400 words) – four/five lines for principal characters, a few lines for secondary characters and a line or two for any additional characters

Timeline

If the story includes a complex or lengthy timeline, or features significant flashbacks or flash-forwards, it may be beneficial to include a List of Events with Date in Time-Order. This will likely include events that happen before or after the main story but that are referred to in and impact the main story.

Tailoring The Treatment

The above outlines how the general treatment would be written. However, it might be necessary to customize a treatment for a specific purpose, such as when a funder or broadcaster has specific requirements, such as specific word-count or emphasis on story / characters / tone.

Using the above guidance will help us create a concise and effective 10-page treatment that will help get our TV Drama or movie noticed by the industry.

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