A Guide to Treatments and Scripts

The following is a revised version of an article I wrote for my students.

A Guide to Treatments and Scripts

Copyright 2015 by Jim Krause. (Revised 10/13/2018) No parts of this document may be used or reproduced without the author’s permission.

Treatments and scripts are important tools used to plan and produce films and TV shows. Proceeding into a production without them is akin to trying to build a house out of a pile of materials, without plans or a blueprint. So, whether you’re crafting your next screenplay, producing a training video, or designing cut scenes for a video game, it’s important to understand the structure and application of both treatments and scripts.

Treatments

There is much confusion as to what treatments are simply because the term is used so frequently in related disciplines and applications. (Treatments for sets, lighting, sound design, etc.). In the context of writing for TV or film, a treatment succinctly describes major story and character points in a sequential manner. It can be thought of as a condensed version of a script. While a completed film script might be 120 pages long, it’s treatment might be only seven. In this regard, the treatment serves as the blueprint for a script. It’s much easier to make changes in a five-page treatment than a hundred-page script. So, it’s wise to first outline and refine your story with a treatment. Once you (and your producer or clients) are happy with it, then write a script based on the treatment.

Scene-based structure

Scenes are the basic building blocks of treatments. They can be thought of as mini-stories in that they have a beginning, middle, and end. Scenes should push the story along and/or develop a character. If a scene doesn’t do either, it’s pointless and should be removed. In preparing a treatment, number and title each scene. Describe the scene’s action with a few sentences or a paragraph written in present tense. Once you’ve finished, you’ll have a document that clearly and efficiently describes the story.

Scripts

Without a script, it would be impossible to know where and what to shoot, what actors should say, what special effects are needed, and who gets to kiss who at the end. The script serves as the roadmap for production, outlining character action, dialog, blocking, locations, shots, sounds, and other important audio/visual components. There are two major scripting formats used in video and film development: the single-column “drama” (also known as “master screenplay”) script and the two-column “TV” or “Documentary” style script.

“Drama” or “Master Screenplay” scripts are well-suited for fiction or narrative storytelling. [Drama script example from Wikipedia.org.] This style of script focuses on communicating action and dialog, not describing specific shots. This is because in film and TV dramas, art directors and cinematographers usually are the ones dictating what we see, not the writers. Describing the visual elements is best achieved through storyboards, which illustrate composition along with talent and camera blocking.

“Two-column” scripts are the best choice for news, documentary, commercial, industrial, and music video productions. These scripts contain two columns of information. The left-hand side contains video information while the right-hand side contains audio. [Two-column script example.]. The best thing about this style of script is that at any point in time it shows precisely what is being seen and what is being listened to. The two-column script allows for more specific production information (E.g. Camera shots, graphics.) than the drama style script, which is limited to action and dialog.

Since scripts often go through several revisions, it’s a good idea to include a title and revision date in the header.

Treatments and scripts are important components of the planning process for TV and film. They can help you pitch your next project, clearly convey its story, and guide key aspects of production. It’s fortuitous that writing and developing either takes nothing but time and thought.

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