TV WRITING TIPS: Breaking Down the Television Series Treatment

Yvonne Grace is an award-winning Television Drama Producer with 20+years experience in Script Development, Script Editing and Drama Production for the BBC, CITV and ITV. Her Script Consultancy Script Advice delivers workshops, provides online TV writing training and develops writer talent. Follow Yvonne on Twitter @YVONNEGRACE1.

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The creative process can be messy. If you are a Jackson Pollock sort of word splasher, then you will know what I mean. If you lean more to the Mondrian or Escher school of thought, you may well have backed up every file you ever started (and there will be many) entitled ‘story 1+revisions’ with the date, time and file size methodically noted. Only you will understand the complexity of your story mapping and you will adore story lining.

TV WRITING TIPS: Breaking Down the Television Series Treatment by Yvone Grace | Script Magazine #scriptchatAs a writer, I fall into both camps. I splash, but I also like structure and order. I am also obsessed with story lining. Which is just as well, because via my consultancy Script Advice, I specialise in unravelling, developing and enhancing the work of television writers, primarily engaged in the process of writing series and serial formats.

There’s a time and a place for everything and when you are beginning a project, then you can afford to get your metaphorical writer’s smock covered in paint. (I say this in the blind belief that there is no-one out there in cyber land, reading this article, that actually wears a writer’s smock. If you do. Stay safe. Stay inside.)

The Creative Spark happens; as we story nuts all know, whenever the flip it wants to.

Be ready.

THE IGNITION:

At the point of ignition, your imagination will be firing off at all angles. It might have been a word. It might have been an image. It might have been the combination of your sister Lesley saying that thing about your Uncle George whilst plugging in the kettle – it just happened and what ever started it, you now have to get your initial thoughts down as soon as you can, otherwise the Zeitgeist – that pesky mirror of our collective thinking – will go and sit on some other writer’s shoulder and whisper in their ear instead.

Here, at the Ignition Point, you need to brain storm what it is you are trying to say. There’s something great here….maybe. But now you have started the engine, you need to make sure the narrative continues to drive forward otherwise what you may find is that you have just had an idea for a story that only sits in a single hour or two at the most.

The life span – or format length – of your story depends on many factors, but the most important one focusses down on the number of characters you have carrying your plot line and their interaction with each other.

Longevity of a story is the direct result of how much connectivity, association and impact one character and their arc, has on another.

There is a reason why the series format (also called Continuing Drama in UK TV) has at its centre, a family, a group, an ensemble – these characters carry the weight of the series on their shoulders.

thedistantpictureTHE EXPANSION

Consider now, your overall message.

What is it you are trying to say?

Don’t be afraid at this point, to talk your story out. It’s in the telling that the holes will appear. By vocalising what your story is really about; what you really want to discuss here, you will realise very quickly if there is enough actual meat on the bones to warrant more than a single telling. You will also begin to pin point the main message.

It will only be in the writing of the Treatment that you will be able to totally nail your story and where you will also be able to define the over all concept as well as zone in on the detail of your world.

The Expansion bit of the creation process is where you will need to describe and define the over all story arc of each character. Here you will be doing two vital things:

1/ Nailing the Text – the action – the plot line for your character

2/ Identifying and bringing into dramatic play, the Subtext of the character.

These two have to work together.

When you get Subtext working with Text; then your Message can come alive and your

audience will know what it is you were trying to say.

concentric circlesTHE DISTILLATION

Here you need to break your idea down into its component parts. You are getting at the essence; the kernel of your idea. You want to show both the beating heart of your world, but also the narratives surrounding it.

So we are talking about themes; we are also talking about the beats of your story arcs for your characters; the drive of the narrative through the episodes.

In Bloodline, for example, the themes are:

Loyalty, Family, Love, Rejection, Abandonment, Atonement.

The component parts of the story represented in the Treatment of the idea would be:

The Setting – Florida Keys.

The Family – Back story and present.

The Secret – the Murderous activity of the siblings and its consequences.

These should be expressed in the Treatment.

THE CONCLUSION

You have ignited the spark, expanded on the concept, broken it down into its component parts and now you need to tie the whole thing up. Be sure your story holds water. Ask yourself these questions:

 * WHAT IS THIS ABOUT?

* WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SAY AND HOW ARE YOU GOING TO SAY IT?

* WHAT DO WE LEARN?

Get this information into your Treatment and you will be able to at least start the development ball rolling. Without this process, you will find you are ill-prepared for the questions that will be asked of you about your potential series.

I know in the US, you view the business of series differently to writers in the UK.

But I wanted to show you my template for a TV Treatment. I believe if you follow this, you won’t go far wrong in constructing and describing your long running series story.

In my world, a Treatment is no longer than 8 pages and no less than 2. We can produce extended treatments and also of course Bibles of drama series, but for the purposes of this article, I am focussing on the document that is most often requested at the beginning of a conversation with a potential Commissioner or Producer.

This is the Selling Document – where your creative idea gets broken down in to its component parts and the Essence, or Distillation of your idea is presented.

bookcover front tv bookTEMPLATE FOR TELEVISION TREATMENT – SCRIPT ADVICE scriptadvice.co.uk

by Yvonne Grace

TITLE:

Make yours really sell your idea by being the best you can make it.

My favourite titles? ‘Call The Midwife’. ‘Roger and Val Have Just Got In’. Sometimes it’s better that the title describes what’s in the tin, so to speak eg: ‘Good Cop’ or, to take an example of a show for CITV that I Produced; ‘My Dad’s A Boring Nerd’.

My favourite US titles? ‘The Good Wife’. ‘Breaking Bad’. ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

FORMAT DESCRIPTION:

These are the definitions that describe my working day and most of my television career in drama production.

NB: US writers – these descriptions won’t cut it with you – you will be stating here, your series length – so 13 x 1 hours

Series: A drama that is open ended. A core cast of returning characters. The backdrop remains the same and is returned to each week. This is also called ‘the precinct’. There may be several stories per episode which are resolved, but the series storyline, that which is carried by the core returning cast, remains open. For example: ‘Waking The Dead’ ‘Coronation Street’ ‘Downton Abbey’ ‘Scott and Bailey’ ‘Skins’.

Serial: A drama of more than two parts with a strong serial element. A core cast of returning characters and an over arching storyline, but in this case the storyline is ultimately resolved. For example: ‘The Wrong Mans’ ‘Prey’ ‘My Big Fat Teenage Diary’ ‘Peaky Blinders’ ‘Poldark’.

Here in your treatment you state how long your series or serial is x 3/4/6/8 parts or is it a series of 13 or more parts?

 LOGLINE:

In a small paragraph; a cluster of lines 3 – 6 maximum (otherwise it’s a pitch paragraph, not a logline!) summarise your idea as succinctly and entertainingly as you can. You need to convey the main narrative here – the set up, the jeopardy or challenge for your protagonist and to give a sense of style and tone by the way you word this. It’s hard to do but essential. This is what your Producer/Commissioner will keep referring to in your conversation about the drama and its future development.

ONE PARAGRAPH OF TASTY DESCRIPTION SETTING OUT THE WORLD:

Here the job is to be as descriptive and evocative as possible. Imagine you are telling your friend about a film you have just seen that truly made an impact on you. You need to entice them into the storyline, to make them want to see it too.

Use your visual brain and set out some key moments – they need not be the first ones seen in the first scene of your pilot – but they could be ‘set pieces’ or significant moments in your story for your main character. Visualise and describe for us what is going on. Draw us in.

CHARACTER BIOGRAPHIES:

Make these as tasty as you can. I like to add a quotation relating to each character under their name; the sort of thing they are most likely to say or something that alludes to their particular storyline. For example; in a treatment I wrote, ostensibly about the Eternal Quest For Mr Right and entitled ‘A Man For All Seasons’ (I did not square this with the estate of Robert Bolt but, if it had been commissioned I would have had to do a rethink) I created a character called Plum. Her quotation was ‘Plum is looking for a man she can spar with; so far, she has only dated a man that shops there’. In each character biography, give a suggestion of the arc of their storyline across the number of episodes. Make these people live on the page.

EPISODE OUTLINES:

Be exact and succinct in your language; avoid ‘then she said, then he said’ (which is oxygen sucking for anyone to read). Give only the thrust of the A storyline (or the main story line) with the smaller B and C’s threading in between. The broad stroke is necessary here, not the detail.

The reason these are here in the treatment, is to prove to a prospective buyer/producer that your idea really does fill the slots you say you are aiming for. So if there are 3 parts or 8, a producer will be looking at whether there is enough story material to go the distance. Some producers may ask for more detail at this point, and you can then provide them with an episode break down (which is a step by step break down of the story as it unfolds in each episode) but here, in the treatment, you are setting out the long arcs – the broad strokes – you need to give an impression of plenty but avoid tedious details.

MAIN STORY ARCS:

Each character has a journey and here you outline what that is in story terms. Again, pithy evocative language is what we are looking for.

Every moment a character exists on screen is a moment weighted with both subtext and text. Get their story down here for your Commissioner/Producer to see in an easily accessible way.

THE CENTRAL MESSAGE:

This will most likely be alluded to in your logline, but here you can extrapolate a bit more and dig a bit deeper. What do you want your audience to come away thinking having spent time with your drama? What is it you are saying about the world and your characters? What is the macro message to be gleaned from diving, as we have done here, in your treatment, into the micro world of your drama?

Throughout the writing of your treatment you must also pay attention to the style and tone of your writing and as much as possible, evoke for your reader the flavour of what they will ultimately be seeing on screen.

Need help with your treatment writing? Get in touch.

Get our FREE download, Screenplay Treatment 101 on how to write a script treatment, including a screenplay treatment example!

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