Writing the Film Treatment: Tell the Heart of Your Story One Beat at a Time

Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: www.jonjamesmiller.com Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.

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Before I was bitten by the writing bug I wanted to be a graphic artist like my older brother. His skills are amazing and I used to watch him draw until he would kick me out of his room. Naturally, I loved his figure drawings of naked females the most. And when he wasn’t around I’d sneak into his room and grab a big book on his shelf called Dynamic Anatomy by legendary artist and instructor Burne Hogarth. What I learned from sneaking peeks of Hogarth’s drawings of naked women would spill into my scriptwriting decades later. Specifically, you don’t have to be an artist to see when something is off in a picture. The same holds true for writers and screenwriting. But sometimes you have to see a problem before you can fix it.

Film treatment 2I’ve always been a pantser vs. a planner when it came to my writing as well as my drawing. I’d rather fly by the seat of my pants and see where my imagination took me rather than sit down and plot out an outline. And like my drawing of the human figure, what I usually ended up with (especially in the beginning) was a script that resembled more of a bloated mass than an attractive, sleek and sexy storyline. Try as I might, my sense of proportion was always off kilter. But rather than take the time to outline and plan, I kept trying to fake my way through my script structure like I had my figure drawing.

Eventually, I gave up drawing and concentrated on my writing full-time. And as I grew older I became fascinated with story structure. I mimicked all the tools my favorite screenwriting hero’s had used to flesh out their stories; subtext, character backstory and dark and light traits to give depth. I played with subtext, metaphor, allegory and parable to bring life to my own creations. But still, after writing for years, I refused to adhere to the classical, three-act screenplay structure and still flew by the seat of my pants. And as a result, something was always a bit lifeless to my scripts.

Years later, after graduating film school and moving to Los Angeles, I still refused to incorporate outlining into my writing. It just seemed like a waste of time and took the fun out of creating a story from scratch, not knowing where you were going or your characters were taking you until the end. Then I became a script reader for several studios and began getting paid to do coverage and study the structure of other aspiring screenwriter’s work. I began to see what was wrong and didn’t work in their scripts that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see in mine. Depressed, I even stopped writing to spend all my time reading everyone else’s work and was or wasn’t working in their stuff. My eye for character, dialogue, story pace and structure became so good that I could tell what was wrong in someone else’s screenplay almost immediately. I was back to standing beside my brother’s drafting table, telling him what was wrong with his proportions until he shoved me out of his room and slammed the door. I had become an expert at identifying what lacked depth or dimension in a script without ever mastering those same skills in my own work.

A few more years went by until one of my spec scripts caught the eye of a producer. He liked my concept, my characters, even my dialogue rang true – but something was off. I knew what he was going to say even before he opened his mouth. It was the structure. The script seemed “heavy” he said, and “out of balance.” I was terrified that he was going to pass on my work. Instead, he asked me if I would be willing to write a treatment for the script. I was terrified. I had never written a treatment in my life. But knowing it was now or never, I readily agreed and took the following two weeks distilling what he said intrigued him about my story in treatment form.

Those two weeks were some of the hardest days ever spent in my writing life. I looked everywhere for examples of great treatments that I could steal the structure of and incorporate into my own movie treatment. But there were precious few samples that I could find online and the ones that I did uncover left me completely underwhelmed. Then I ran across Kevin Williamson’s (Scream, Dawson’s Creek) original film treatment for HALLOWEEN: H2O. Williamson wrote it in a hurry back in 1997 as a favor to Jamie Lee Curtis in the midst of pre-production on his Dawson’s Creek. I read it right away and light bulbs went off in my head.

That Williamson’s vision for H20 was superior to the 1998 film is no surprise. He ended up getting no credit for it other than as a silent producer. What is surprising, however, was how he incorporated character shading, snippets of dialogue and even an entire scene in the treatment – making the heart of his horror movie vision come alive and pop off the page. All the story beats were there, broken up by Acts that were even titled like chapters in a book. I was smitten.

The next two days were spent lifting Williamson’s treatment style and applying it to my own script. But what happened then was nothing short of miraculous. While I was essentially adapting my screenplay into paragraph-form for the treatment, I began to see where things didn’t work from a structural point of view. By being forced to beat-out my story I suddenly realized what was wrong with my sense of proportion, pace and emphasis in the screenplay. I inadvertently discovered the process by which I would write all my subsequent work. To this day, I still fly by the seat of my pants when I write the first draft. But then I write a treatment and see where the true heart of the story is by following the beats for my revisions. Of course, my brother the artist would say it’s ass-backwards. But it’s my process and I’ve never looked back since.

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