Wednesday, 18 March 2009
How to Write a Winning Treatment
For the Euroscript Screen Story Competition 2009 you have two pages to sell us your script. To help you, here is a quick checklist. There are no rigid rules, so you don’t need to follow this slavishly, and we certainly won’t penalise you if you don’t, it’s simply a life-raft if you’re drowning.
Is there a clear central character? (Or, if it’s an ensemble piece, is it clear which characters form part of the ‘ensemble’ and which are just the supporting act?)
Is the central character on screen at least 80 per cent of the time? Is s/he introduced in the first sentences?
Crucially, what’s interesting about them? Why do we want to watch them for two hours on screen?
Is your central character active not passive? Does s/he drive the action, responding to each obstacle by making choices which, in turn, drives him/her to formulate new goals (rather than react passively to plot points making them feel like a bit of a victim?)
Is it clear which side of the tracks your character comes from? What’s his/her outlook on life? What’s his/her hang up?
How has the character changed by the end of the story? This list is by no means definitive, more things to think about, but by the end of the film how have the following changed?
his/her beliefs, values
his/her attitude to life
his/her knowledge, insight or wisdom
As film is a visual medium how are these interior changes expressed using images, for example what changes do we see in:
his/her clothes and appearance
his/her circle of friends and acquaintances
his/her home, level of tidiness for example
his/her speech patterns
Are there three or four huge beats, or turning points, which take your central character to a new emotional place? If fewer - is there enough going on? If more - is your story coherent?
How are these played out on screen? What makes these scenes visually extraordinary while at the same time being emotionally powerful?
Is there a fascinating relationship at the heart of the story? What does the relationship look like at the beginning of the film? As the central character changes, how does this relationship change? What happens to this relationship by the end of the film? Which two or three big, visual scenes illustrate how this relationship is changing?
Does the plot of your story hang on the Central Character’s ‘journey’ or ‘character arc’?
Does the central character have a clear, specific goal? What obstacles does he/she face in trying to pursue this goal. Obstacles can be expressed both in terms of inner blocks, flaws or wounds as well as external obstacles (family, community, the environment, aliens from outer space).
Do these obstacles escalate, in difficulty and dramatic impact?
Which are the four or five great plot twists which keep the audience gasping?
Have you made clear that this is a feature film. It will be filmed using expensive cameras and lenses, will be shown in a massive cinema on a vast screen and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make. Does it have an extraordinary visual style? Are the locations epic? Stylistic? What will the colour palette and the cinematic style be? (Think, for inspiration, of the visual styles of ‘Amelie’, ‘Milk’ and ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’, for example).
Is the genre you have chosen used consistently throughout? Is it clearly comedy or horror? Sci-fi or musical? Make sure you haven’t mixed genres unless you really know what you’re doing. We don’t want to discourage fresh, original ideas that may depend on a striking combination (Sci-Fi Musical, anyone?). However we do want to discourage treatments which aren’t consistent in their genre choice.
PREMISE and POINT
Is your premise clear? By the end of the film have we learned something that's fresh and original about the world in which we live and what it means to be human? What’s the point of your story? Don't leave your audience wondering.
In some films, a specific ‘expertise’ turns a potentially dull story into ‘The Wrestler’. Does your film show us a 'world' of expertise? How will the specialised knowledge of this world bring added pleasure to the audience? Films like The Bodyguard, Chocolate, Babette’s Feast, Strictly Ballroom, are all brought to life by their ‘expertise’. (Obviously, this isn’t mandatory). (And obviously you need to be the world’s expert on your chosen ‘expertise’ so you don’t get mowed down by a gang of outraged train-spotters once your movie is released).
BEATING OUT YOUR PLOT
Are you writing out the story, beat by beat, so it’s clear how the plot develops through the film? For example:
by half-way down page one, do we know a) who the central character is; b) what kind of world he/she is living in; what plot twist is hurtling him/her into the story?
by the end of page one, has the character dug him/herself into a terrifying hole - either emotional, physical or, preferably, both? Is the world conspiring against him/her? What’s the plan to make the comeback?
by half way down page two are we reaching a terrifying, horrifying climax where the character may die, or at the very least, lose everything?
what’s the big twist at the end, which comes from deep within the central character, that will give us the satisfying ending?
Obviously some films are ‘quieter’, more nuanced, and don’t rely on a plot that ‘hurtles’ but just make sure we’re being told the whole story and nothing but the story, from beginning, through the middle, to the end.
Is there a great title, probably no longer than about five words, that sums up the theme or the central character? Often this is his/her name or his/her goal/predicament (Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Dead Man Walking, Rocky, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler). Long wordy titles with complicated place-names and/or double-entendres which rely on the audience having a degree in Semiotics to understand their meaning are a bit offputting.
Is your writing style in the treatment reflecting the film you want to make? If it’s a screwball comedy does your prose reflect this by making us laugh? If it’s a horror, are we too terrified to read to the end?
Are you totally, one hundred per cent positive your local cinema will want to show this film to people handing over £8 or more for the privilege (and that’s not counting the cost of the popcorn).
CUT THE WASTE
Is everything in your story crucial? Can you cut or merge a few dozen of those ancillary characters? Do you really need those round-the-world locations? That army of ten thousand horsemen? Is every word of your treatment working hard to tell us your story?
Now forget every word I’ve just written, tear up the rulebook, stick two fingers up to the so-called gurus who think they can teach you how to write and tell the story that’s bursting to come out of you in the way that reflects who you truly are.
You may copy this checklist onto your own website or blog but if you do we would be grateful if you would credit the author of this article Fenella Greenfield (firstname.lastname@example.org) and put a link to our website at www.euroscript.co.uk.