Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing The Feature Script: Week Three - The Treatment

Over the course of 15 weeks I will be teaching "Writing The Feature Script" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Week by week I will be writing blog articles about each topic that we discuss in class.  However, because I spent two weeks in Calgary (working an MTV movie, The Dorm), I've had to take a hiatus from writing the blog.  Don't worry, I'm back!

This is a synopsis of Week Three.  You can read about our previous classes here:

Writing The Feature Script: Week One - OVERVIEW
Writing The Feature Script: Week Two -Finding the Story

So if you skim through this article you'll see that I've attached examples of beat sheets and treatments that I've written over the years.  They are all flawed, first-stab-in-the-dark attempts to realize a particular story.  Most are from less-than-prestigious projects that were none-the-less difficult to figure out.  I share them with you specifically because their format and approach serves a particular purpose.  Their ragged edges just underscore that screenwriting is a process of discovery, and you will rarely find everything you are looking for in the first pass.

In other words, if the first attempt at your treatment seems convoluted and hopeless, don't worry; everybody's does, to one degree or another.  The only "perfect treatments" are written about classic movies AFTER they have  been completed - AFTER a long process of revision in which the structure emerged.

Did you know that the first draft of Annie Hall was a drama centered on a murder mystery with a comic and romantic subplot?  Did you know that the shooting script for Punch Drunk Love, the love interest Lena was an Alien?  (I know this from having talked to set dressers who worked on the film.)

In fact, before you set out to write your beat sheet, consider this: one of the most "perfect" screenplays ever written is Chinatown. It has been analyzed thousands and thousands of times in screenwriting classes and textbooks. However, the first first draft of Chinatown was 178 pages long; screenwriter Robert Towne took 9 months to finish it saying that "...the writing of it was just tough: writing scenario, after scenario, after scenario was just so complicated that after a certain point, I thought I’d never get through it." Producer Robert Evans called the first draft brilliant but incomprehensible, and even Towne himself admitted that if the first draft had been shot, "it would have been a mess."  That "perfect beat sheet" that appears in screenplay books only emerged after a long process of restructuring, revision and clarification.  (See LA Times Article on the director/writer/producer collaboration in Chinatown.)

Then Why Write a Treatment?

A treatment is a tool for communication. There is no set format.  For me, the form is determined by what the treatment is supposed to communicate, and what kind of response the writer hopes to get from those who read it.  Sometimes I want feedback and notes, sometimes I just want a "yes" from someone so that I can start writing the script, and sometimes I just want to write it for myself, to try to make sense of my convoluted ideas.

The content of a treatment is basically the writer's first attempt to pin down the STORY STRUCTURE and identify key moments in the story such as the POINT OF ATTACK, the MIDPOINT, and 2ND ACT CULMINATION, using templates like Frank Daniel's SEQUENCE APPROACH.

(Other templates include Blake Snyder's BEAT SHEET and The Hero's Journey)

The important thing to remember here is that the story will change radically as the treatment is revised and multiple drafts of the script are written.  Almost all treatments have  problems, and the purpose of the treatment is to take an initial a crack at solving them.  The most common story problems at this point are.

1. Passivity. Generally speaking, we don't want a list of things that happen to the characters.  The story should be driven by characters DECISIONS and ACTIONS in pursuit of a goal.

2. Monotony. We want to avoid monotony by making sure the story is not just a list of disconnected events: and then this happens, and then this happens, and then this..." Instead, events should be linked in a series of BUT, THEREFORE (because of that), and MEANWHILE (for subplots.)  Storytellers as diverse as as Trey Parker (see Six Days To Air), Randy Olsen (documentary filmmaker, author of Connection), and Frank Daniel himself have advocated going through one's story and replacing every AND with a BUT or THEREFORE.

In a lecture to students at AFI, Frank Daniel said, "If you don't have this 'but' and 'therefore' connection between the parts, the story becomes linear, monotonous, just narrative. Diaries and chronicles are written that way, but not scripts. There is no way of heightening the conflict and continuing the suspense in such a pattern."

In order for the story to have tension and conflict, the protagonist must face an escalating series of obstacles, and each roadblock or complication that s/he faces must come as a result of the way s/he faced the previous obstacle.  In the Godfather, Michael doesn't want to be a man like his father, BUT his father is shot, THEREFORE, Michael has kill the man who did it.  THEREFORE, a mob war starts. THEREFORE, Michael has to run away to Sicily where he starts a new life, BUT Michael's brother Sonny is shot... and so on, and so on...

Index Cards and Beat Sheets

A true BEAT SHEET is basically a bullet point list (or sometimes a numbered list) of all the major scenes and story beats in a movie (usually between 60 to 90 beats.)  Because beat sheets are so skeletal and boring to read, they are usually only used by the writers themselves, to hash things out.  They are usually shown only to collaborators who know the story intimately (a writing partner, a collaborative director, a professor.)

Here is a beat sheet for Toy Story 3, that identifies the Save The Cat structure in about 75 beats/bullet points.  TOY STORY BEAT SHEET.

Notice how the story beats follow cause and effect, with BUT and THEREFORE, and notice how each beat can be distilled in reference to characters ACTIONS and DECISIONS.

But, again, remember that this is an ANALYSIS of a finished movie.  There are hundreds of screenwriting books with analyses of thousands of famous films, all fitting them into one theory of structure or another.  But analyzing a movie at the end of a creative process is not the same as writing a story on the blank page. 

Your beat sheet will never look like the post-facto analysis of a "perfect" finished film.  If it does, your doing it wrong.  Story structure emerges from a process that should highlight intuition and inspiration.  If you have the SAVE THE CAT STRUCTURE pinned to your computer while forming the story, or you are literally filling in blanks on a template sheet, you are driving while looking at your GPS map instead of the road.

STORY STRUCTURE and BEAT SHEETS are maps, not the territory itself.  Your story, and its beats, will emerge from a process of discovery, continual retelling and revision.

The point of this blog article is to give you an idea of what real "first draft" treatments look like, with all their warts and cellulite, so that you don't expect your own to be "perfect" (like the Toy Story 3 beat sheet) the first time around. 

Think of you first beat sheet or treatment as an extremely plastic and protean document.  You are liable to change it over and over again, as you work on on your story.  For that reason, rather than write my story beats down on paper, I tend to put them on INDEX CARDS.  

Index cards lend themselves to shifting around, crumpling up, and tagging with random post-its.  Sometimes a single card turns into an entire sequence.  Sometimes a moment that you thought was the END OF THE FIRST ACT, turns out to be a POINT OF ATTACK.  Sometimes whole subplots appear and disappear like phantoms.  Cards can be color coded to track subplots, characters, and tension.  You can stand back and get a sense of your movie a whole.

The idea is not to ask yourself  "What is my midpoint?" or "What's my 'Hightower Surprise.'"  You just start assembling the ideas you have for character actions and their consequences, adding evocative images and set pieces that excite you, seeing where those imaginative elements might fit in an overall structure, and looking for how those points might be sharpened and improved.  Play with those beats.  Move them around. Create them and throw them away.  The structure, in all it's monomythical glory, will emerge.

Three Page Treatment

Often I write 3-5 page treatments.  These are written in prose form and usually contain a logline, a character list, and a short synopsis of the story.   I write these when I have a story idea that I'm not yet ready to write as a screenplay, but that I may want to show to a producer, executive or agent in order to get them interested in the idea (i.e. I just want them to say "yes.")  These treatments need to be short and easy-to-read, so that a non-writer can make the simple judgement, "Is this a good idea for a movie?"

Unlike a beat sheet, which I write for myself in order to expose story flaws and to inspire further re-thinking and rewriting, this short treatment is meant to "sell" the idea, so I try to make the story seem as airtight and and compelling as possible (even though it's not, and I know that the actual screenwriting process will radically change it.)  It's okay to write these treatment with a little flourish if that helps define the movie.

Here's a story idea I showed around many years ago...
The answer on Body Electric, for one reason or another, was "No, I don't see it as a movie." Perhaps you don't either.  But that's the point.  The format of this kind of treatment is written for a clear yes or no.

I might also write a three page treatment when I have been hired on a project, but a powerful producer or director must "sign off" on a synopsis before I go to script.  These "higher ups" rarely have much spare time or attention, so the goal of the treatment is to just summarize what I plan to write in a simple and easy-to-read way.  (Again, I'm hoping to get a "yes") Here is the synopsis I wrote for Rambo: Last Stand.
When I wrote the Rambo script (which has since been discarded by the producers and Mr. Stallone) much of the story changed.  If I re-wrote the synopsis based on that screenplay, it would look much different.  If the script went through the usual rounds of rewrites, the story synopsis would look even MORE different.  And, if the movie were ever made (but there are no plans to make it) the story synopsis would have changed again.

In general, I don't write treatments in simple straightforward prose form that are longer than five pages.  Long treatments read like extremely pedestrian short stories, and they are rarely very entertaining.  However, a some sort of longer format is often necessary...

The Extended Treatment

The extended treatment is a kind of hybrid of the beat sheet and a traditional treatment.  On the one hand, it has bullet points and bold simple sentences describing all the main beats of the story, like a beat sheet.  But these beats are fleshed out in a way that expands on characterization, setting and other important details, like a prose treatment. The format is easy to read, but it is also easy to skim.

The point of the extended treatment is to get NOTES and FEEDBACK.  Those who read it are likely to be producers, executives, agents, directors, fellow writers in writing groups and others who are collaborating closely in the writing process.  The bullet points allow the readers to skim for an overview of structure, but also allow them to read closely and explore the finer details.  

I write these treatments to the best of my ability, but I allow the warts and cellulite to show so that others can give me notes, ideas, and suggestions for improvement.  Again, the point is not to write it perfectly.  The point is to write it well enough so that it's possible to gather feedback.

The first draft is essentially a rewrite of the treatment, and just another cycle in an ongoing  REWRITE PROCESS.  Here's an example of a treatment I wrote before embarking on a first draft:
Most of my students wrote treatments in this format, and so they were able to get rounds of very specific and cogent feedback from the 10 other screenwriters in the class.

The Leave Behind

Often writers have to "pitch for writing assignments."  A production company or studio has a general idea of a movie they want to make, such as a sequel to Turistas or The Haunting in Connecticut, and a series of writers come in with their "take" on the material.

Sometimes when I pitch an idea for a sequel, remake or adaptation, I give the executives listening to the pitch a "leave behind" which is a short synopsis of my "take."  The point of this document is to remind them of the story I've pitched so that they can discuss it later, and to provide extra details, like production illustrations (which I draw myself.)

Here is a treatment I wrote to try to land the job to write Turistas 2.  Ultimately, no writer was hired and the movie was never made. (probably for the best, no?)
Here is the treatment I wrote for The Haunting In New York. Notice how flashy I get with colors and pictures to try to convince the readers to give me the job.  As it turned out,  I got it, and I wrote the screenplay, but because The Haunting in Georgia did poorly at the box office, the series was abandoned and my script was never shot.
If you bother reading any of these documents, you'll know doubt be able to find all sorts of structural weakness, plot holes, and dumb ideas.  Again, other than just sharing the format, this is precisely why I'm showing them to you.

Treatments are your first draft of your first draft.  If you are engaging in the creative process in a dynamic and authentic way, your treatment will shimmer with inspiration and at the same time reveal unanticipated and daunting story problems.  And, that's right where you want to be!

If you write the "perfect treatment" according to SAVE THE CAT, THE SEQUENCE APPROACH, or the HERO'S JOURNEY, it is likely only "perfect" because you have filled in the blanks with hackneyed, easy, inauthentic, or implausible choices.  You can do better.  

Now get writing... and when you are finished with the treatment, show it to as many people as you can and find out just what those challenges are.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.


matthew prince said...

Is it worth writing extended treatments then getting experienced writers on board to turn them into a strong scripts?

S. Breckenridge Hood said...

Since what an experienced writer brings to the table is a strong sense of story and structure, I think it's best to bring them in at the treatment stage.

JD said...

Thanks for this, Sean.

As a beginning screenwriter, I've found that

1) making the distinction between "the map and the territory."


2) understanding that the real story emerges through a process of discovery

are essential to getting on the right track. The crucial distinction between "map" and "territory" and "analysis after the fact" and "creation" that is not often addressed with clarity.


rudi said...

Thanks, Sean, this article found me right on time while I went down the rabbit-hole of writing the "perfect treatment".

Any chance we will see further write-ups of your USC lectures? Thanks.