How to Build a Treatment to Pitch Your Film Idea

Credit: Five Day Film School
Creating a script treatment can feel like a daunting task, but we’ve got a plan to help you out.

Every great story in film is born from an idea. Sometimes, those ideas come to you at the most random time of the day while other ideas emerge after wracking at your brain for hours upon hours. No matter how you came up with the idea, you create a world around it that eventually becomes the final screenplay. But screenplays don’t just magically poof into existence.

Many screenwriters start developing their stories into a film treatment to get a good understanding of what story they want to be telling.

A treatment is a highly detailed outline of characters, events, and locations for a screenplay. Treatments are an essential tool in screenwriting because it breaks down the story for others who the story is being pitched to, whether it's a manager or a production company. 

Ryan Thompson, a filmmaker based out of the UK on the Film Riot team, usually breaks down every element of his story before creating a treatment plan to pitch a film idea. By understanding the key elements to the story and creating a structure of events that need to take place, your idea can be fleshed out and ready to pitch. 

Check out Film Riot's video below.

Start with a concept

There is no magic behind creating a concept for a story. For me, ideas pop in my head randomly when I am driving to the grocery store, while others have their ideas right before they fall asleep.

If you are struggling to find inspiration for a concept, try people-watching at a nearby park or the closest shopping mall. While it might feel voyeuristic at first, your mind will start creating little stories about random people and what motivates their actions. One of these lingering thoughts might turn into a concept that sticks. 

There is no tried-and-true way to come up with a concept. It’s important to stay curious about the world and ask, “Why?” or “What if?” Questioning the world around you could entice a concept to reveal itself to you. 

Characters and themes 

Once you have a concept, the next step is to think of who this is happening to and why. Knowing who the central character of your concept is and dialing down on what events need to take place in the story, the inevitable ending will start to take shape. The exact events may not be clear, but what needs to happen will be: does the character face redemption, death, release, or something else? The ending will become clear as the theme becomes clear. 

Basic five point plot structure that most stories in film followCredit: StoryboardThat

Start drafting the structure of the story

After the who, what, and why—character, concept, and theme—of the story is nailed down, then it is time to start planning the beginning, middle, and end. These sections don’t have to go into too much detail. All that needs to be established is where the character is in the beginning, where and why they are in the middle, and how the character changed in the end. 

Two important milestones must be added for the story to move fluidly from beginning, middle, and end.

Ask what shifts the story from act one to act two, then from act two to act three. Using details about the character, their motive, as well as the theme will help decide what shifts the story forward. Slowly, the structure of the story is being built out without having to stress about the minute details that tie everything together. That is not what building a treatment is about. A treatment should be an outline of the story rather than the screenplay itself. 

Most stories can be broken down into three acts. Even more original and out-there films like Annihilation can be broken down into the six-act structure.

In Act One A, the story introduces the lead character and their current normal. This is where the theme is briefly introduced and perhaps foreshadowing what will happen later in the story. Act One B shifts the character from their current normal into the unfamiliar. This is the transition point from the beginning to the middle. Act Two A is the fun and games section. While it could be filler, Act Two A reveals more about the unknown while leading up to the midpoint. Act Two B raises the stakes of the film typically known as the point of no return. In most action films, this is the point where a character typically dies and our character enters the night of the soul. Then, Act Three is the finale and final image. 

This roadmap does not lessen the film. Although structure can become predictable in the story, it is the bones that support the entire screenplay. Without the bones, there will be no sound structure to keep the story alive. Knowing the film structure will make breaking the story down so much easier when creating your treatment. 

Writing the treatment

When all the important points are built out with their whys and hows, then you can start writing your treatment. Treatments are typically a 12- to 18-page document with all of the important details written out. The idea of a treatment is to give the reader a complete sense of the story while having an emphasis on the characters: who are these characters and why do they change?

A great thing to do when planning out your treatment is to create a visual deck, and fitting the images in with moments in the story. This visual deck will not only help you understand how the story looks, but convey the mood to those you are pitching the idea to or to the person writing the story. 

Credit: John August
Writing a treatment may feel like a daunting task, but this process can help this monster feel a bit smaller. While this exact plan of attack may not work out for you, try to find ways to tweak it so you can achieve a compelling treatment. Like anything in filmmaking, writing a treatment is a skill that will develop over time. Don’t be frustrated if you get stuck at any point. Find film writing communities around you that can help give another perspective on a character’s motives. Talking to people you trust about your writing will be beneficial to your work in the long run. 

Have you written a treatment before? Do you have any tips and tricks to offer newer writers? Let us know in the comments below!     

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Nice article, Alyssa! I love getting pragmatic advice on this sort of thing. I also ended up checking out the Milanote app featured in the video -- pretty slick! I've tried a lot of different tools to do this sort of thing but this one seems closest to what I really want...

August 23, 2021 at 9:01AM

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Bryan Howell
Screenwriter, corporate videographer, and indie filmmaker
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