Ten percent of a hundred equals …

Writing a feature screenplay is hard. 100-ish pages, that’s a lot of work and a lot of work takes a lot of time. It’s a given. Everyone knows if you want a screenplay written well, you have to allocate the time to do it.

A treatment on the other hand – 10 pages? Only 10? Well, obviously a tenth of the page count should only take a tenth of the time. I once wrote a screenplay in three days (it was shit) so therefore the treatment should only have taken three hours.

Assuming time were decimal or the Earth span really, really fast. Which it isn’t and doesn’t; but my maths (math?) skills are far too feeble to cope with ten percent of 72 hours. Oh, wait … 7.2 hours. I get that now.

Fuck it, anyway … the point is there’s an assumption about the relationship between time and page count which just isn’t true. A ten page treatment can take exactly the same amount of time to write as a 100 page script.

Is it annoying anyone else that I’m using an inconsistent system to write numbers? Words or numbers, I really should pick one.

Sorry, getting distracted again.

I think sometimes it’s difficult for producers or directors who don’t write to understand why a treatment takes as long as a script. A ten page script usually takes a tenth of the time to film as a 100 page script, so why the discrepancy in the writing time?

Assuming (again) that there is a discrepancy for everyone else and I’m not out on a limb talking about problems no one else suffers from. You know, like when you tell a room full of people about how you hate that feeling when you get up in the middle of the night, go to the toilet in the dark and then wake up to find you only dreamt the bit about going to the toilet and have in fact wet the bed … and everyone shuffles away from you because they’ve never done that.

Personally, I think a good treatment should solve almost all the problems you’ll face when you come to writing the script. There shouldn’t be lines which gloss over the complicated bits like:

“She solves the puzzle and gets the treasure.”

or

“He wins her heart back by doing something romantic. Possibly involving a yoyo.”

Those lines may just about be acceptable in a synopsis (apart from the yoyo line), but to me the treatment is the script without dialogue. I go scene by scene, describing everything that happens both physically and emotionally. Sometimes I even include the odd line of dialogue, if I feel it’s absolutely necessary; but generally it’s a scene by scene description of the movie.

When I was a kid I was briefly in the cubs (before the incident with the bug spray and the rubber gloves which we never, ever talk about) and it coincided with the time Doctor Who was being shown twice a week. The upshot was I missed every second episode. This was in a land before video (or at least affordable home video) and I would have been lost if my mum hadn’t dutifully watched each missed episode and described it to me whilst walking to school the next day. She wouldn’t perform the dialogue, but she would describe each scene in enough detail for me to visualise what was going on. So successfully in fact, that years later when I finally saw the missing episodes – I couldn’t work out which ones I hadn’t seen. Thanks for that, mum.

I always bear that in mind when I’m writing a treatment. I’m telling every detail of the story as it will unfold in the finished script. There can’t be any gaps or bits to work out later – this is where the spine of the story is nailed down.

Sure, there will be extra bits added later. Things will change, scenes will move around, characters will be added or lost; but in essence, my treatments are a first draft.

And that’s why they take as long as a script to write; because I am writing the script in my head. Every scene, every action line, every word of dialogue – I go through the whole thing in my mind and then boil it down until only the essence of the scene is left. What makes it to the page is a description of what happened, scene by scene, in the movie I’ve just created in my head.

If anything, writing a treatment should take longer than a screenplay because there’s an extra step involved. Everything has to be mentally written and then summarised. It’s this process which helps me spot the flaws in the story. Why don’t they just run away? Why does she find him attractive? How come no one noticed the mild-mannered guy has blood spattered all over his face and the murder victim’s teeth marks in his arm?

I like to try and solve all these things before I go anywhere near a script. It’s just easier to prepare everything well in advance and it’s more useful to the person waiting for the treatment. If all the details are there, they can accurately judge what the finished script is going to be like. There shouldn’t be any surprises at this stage, the map should accurately reflect the territory and that takes time to accomplish.

All of which sounds like a long-winded excuse for still not having finished the treatment – but I have. I finished it on Monday in a blaze of inspiration and panic. I’m lucky because the guys I work with are generally lovely and don’t hassle me about stuff like this. Sometimes there are deadlines, but most of the time they trust me to get on with it and just send gentle prodding emails asking how it’s coming along.

Well, it’s done now. It’s over. I’ve handed it in and am eagerly awaiting the notes. There may be enough to justify a second treatment or I may go straight to script – I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime I’m going straight back to the rewrite I interrupted for this treatment,

Or I might go out and play for a bit first.

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Categories: My Way, Progress | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Ten percent of a hundred equals …

  1. Have to agree about the importance of getting it right in the treatment. I’m suffering because I under-prepared the story in my treatment. I glossed over bits. I’m now going to finish it off as I’m only ten or so pages away from the end of my first draft but I’m going to spend a lot of time redoing it now.

    The treatment IS the screenplay the script is the execution.

  2. I’m still learning how the heck to write treatments. And synopsiseses. And scripts for that matter. Sheesh! You’d think they’d learn you this stuff at school when you’re doing Shakespeare and Ibsen and such … unless they did, and I was in London at an RPG convention at the time… ? Probably, come to think about it. I spent most of my teenage years in search of the perfect dice (die?).

    Math, by the way.

  3. Well it shouldn’t be.

  4. Darren

    Oh no, no, no… it’s ‘maths’ (short for mathematics).

    Grrrr.

    By the way, Phill, your post describes more or less exactly the way I work. I just can’t get to the writing of a script (or, indeed, the treatment itself) until I’ve plotted all of the hows, whys and wheres in my head first. It usually involves very long baths and showers!

  5. JB

    Great post! I’m with you on the treatment thing, whether you write it out in full or just in bullet points. Either way, I feel you have to know what’s happening every step of the way.

    But what I really liked was the anecdote about your Mum. Obviously story-telling runs in your genes.

    JB

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