Why you should write a treatment before anything else

We all have different ways of working, of getting what we need to get done, of going from something to nothing. Some of us pants, some of us plot, all of us make excuses. Sometimes, as in any business, the gatekeepers want to know what we're going to create before we actually do it – particularly if there's money involved. At times like that, insisting that we need six months to bash out a shitty first draft with accompanying esoteric rituals before we can answer isn't going to cut it – we're going to have to produce. But how can we possibly know what we're going to write before we even write it? The answer is a treatment.

Used correctly a treatment isn't just a statement of intent – it's a means of establishing some story and character fundamentals up front. And I don't care who you are, this is never a bad thing.

So what exactly is a 'treatment'? Well, different establishments expect different things so you need to pay attention if asked for one - but essentially they must contain three things: a character list with character descriptions, a brief synopsis, and an outline. The synopsis is basically a short prose description of the story, while the outline is a scene by scene breakdown of the whole thing.

To some writers that sounds like a nightmare. But it doesn't have to be. Here's six reasons why it should be fun – and why it will make your story and characters stronger and your opus easier to write. And why, if you use them properly, you'll end up producing treatments because you want to, not because you have to.

You can develop your characters without restrictions

We all know that true character is revealed through action but that doesn't mean there's no advantage in working out that character before the big events occur. It's amazing how liberating it can be to develop a character free from the confines of the story. You also have an opportunity to ensure that they are complex and fascinating enough to maintain reader interest for the duration of the piece. You can create backstory, interesting quirks, childhood traumas – stuff that may never end up being addressed in the main narrative but will certainly build up complex and convincing characters.

You can develop your story without restrictions

Once you let yourself go, it's actually equally liberating to write a synopsis of a work you haven't yet written because you can make the story as exciting as you like - rather than trying to make an exciting story out of something you've already written. Which, let's face it, may not actually be that exciting...

If you haven't tried it, you really should – and if you're a storyteller worth your salt, it won't be that hard. And the great thing is, you know your story is going to be good before you start writing. You'll also find that the work you've done developing your characters will spark ideas for your story, and your story ideas will start to feed into your character development. This is really the dream we all aspire to, a compelling story about essential and complex characters – where the two – character and story – become inseparable. The story is the characters and the characters are the story.

You can take risks

It's far easier to change or cut a flippant sentence in a story synopsis than it is to change or cut six chapters of carefully crafted prose. Therefore it's easier to try a story twist on for size when writing a synopsis up front because you can dump it with impunity. Think you're writing a romance but your synopsis turns into an action thriller half-way through? No problem – just change it to suit – in seconds.

It's a lot easier to spot structural problems

When you're looking at a distilled story, it's far, far easier to see something that doesn't work when it's not draped in acres of prose - a story development that just doesn't make sense in the context of the preceding events; a character event that wouldn't be a believable response to what has happened before. It's just so much easier to see the story – or lack of it – when the story is all you have written down.

It's a lot easier to fix structural problems

Because you don't have to ditch all those words you spent months writing to change the story – you just have to change a couple of sentences, without the emotional and time investment that you would have in a full draft.

You'll end up with a better text more quickly.

Because you can de-risk the project before you even start – you're characters won't be lame and your story structure will be robust – and you won't have to write fifteen drafts to get them right. Then you can just concentrate on the fun bit – telling the story.


  1. Excellent insights, James. I'd never thought of a treatment as a tool to identify and fix structural problems, but it makes perfect sense.

    Now, must spread the word.

    1. Glad you found it useful, John, and thanks for your comment and support.

  2. I hadn't heard the term 'treatment' used in this context, and I'm surprised to see that this is how I start a new WIP. It's nice to have a term to use!
    Great blog as ever, James.


    1. Thanks, Hem. Are you famous yet? When and where can we buy your novel?

    2. Hi James, sorry I missed this. No, not famous yet and I doubt I ever will be in the sea of writers that inhabit the world. So far only available on Amazon USA and Barnes & Noble. It's a slow process and I'm still waiting for it to arrive at Amazon UK.
      Hope all is well with you and yours :-)

    3. Ok, well I'm sure you'll let us all know when we can buy it in the UK. Well done and good luck.

  3. I share Hemmie's sentiment: this is how I start a WIP?
    But I just did this (works great as a procrastination technique, btw), and I was glad to find it pretty helpful. I'm not sure that the characters will keep the backgrounds I've given them, but it is good to get me thinking about it. And it's fun--almost like I'm writing a bunch of short stories (which, admittedly, are all vignettes).

    1. Yes, I agree, Jenny. It acts as a place to try things out and develop ideas. When I write a treatment upfront I tend to keep it as I start work on the WIP. It serves as a reminder to myself of what I originally had in mind for characters and the story. I also tend to update it as things change and develop in the WIP, so the treatment always remains representative of what I eventually write and acts as a condensed view of the story and characters. You can be sure that if it sounds pretty good in the treatment, it will be pretty good in the WIP. In truth though, I don't do this for all projects, but I find myself doing it more and more.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts