Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing Treatments: Why Silence Is Golden

I’ve just recently finished a first draft of a (so far) thirty-page treatment. It’s taken ages and bucket-loads of blood, sweat and tears to reach this point.

Why are treatments such a big deal? Everyone talks about them, screenwriters are often asked to write them, and yet I’ve never met anyone who actually enjoys writing or even reading them.

Treatments are a big deal because they’re so damned hard to write well. There are various reasons that it takes so much effort to write a good treatment, but for me at least, the main one is because you need to leave the dialogue out.

There are numerous definitions of what a treatment is in terms of format (to slugline or not to slugline) length (three pages to three hundred), style (screenplay idiom, short story style, whatever you please style), and so on, but the absence of dialogue seems to be a standard requirement in all of these variations.

Now, so much of the fun of writing a screenplay is putting your characters in unpleasant, embarrassing, threatening and tempting situations and then seeing how they respond. You let them ramble on aimlessly in order to generate those few lines of dialogue that end up in the final draft.

But at the treatment stage the characters have to behave as if it’s still the age of silent movies. No talking!!

Limiting yourself to what can be seen is precisely the reason the treatment so mercilessly exposes weaknesses and blind spots in a story.

By not allowing the characters to speak, you force yourself to think through very precisely what each scene is about. You have to ask yourself specifically what the characters do (to each other), what they want and why, what the relationship is between their actions and the overall theme of the story and so on. It also allows you to look at the relationship between scenes, between set-ups and pay-offs, and other structural aspects of the screenplay as a whole.

Once you’re clear on these issues, it becomes a lot easier to write good dialogue, be that dramatic, romantic or comedic. Because if you know what you want your characters to communicate by means of their actions, it’s easy to have them talk about something else (i.e., create subtext).

In fact, getting to the end of a treatment is almost as big a kick as getting to the end of a first draft. Because once you’ve cracked the treatment, you know you’ve done most of the hard work. Your structure is pretty well sorted, your characters are fleshed out, your scenes are well balanced, and so on.

All that remains is the fun part: Peeling the duct tape off your characters mouths and letting them verbally express themselves at last.

Ah, can’t wait!!

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