Revised 2/5/2005. Copyright 2005
by Jim Krause. No parts of this document may be used or reproduced
without the author's permission.
Treatments and scripts are important tools used to pitch
and produce films and TV programs. Proceeding
on any sizable production without them is akin to trying to build
a house out of a pile of lumber- without a blueprint. While they
are both printed documents, they have differing and very specific
purposes. So whether you want to sell your next screenplay, produce
a training video, or design the cut scenes of a video game,
it's important to understand the construction and application of
both treatments and scripts.
Major motion pictures are routinely pitched with treatments. They
describe the action and story development in the briefest terms
possible. Because of this, you generally won't find much dialog
or specific production information (like camera shots) in treatments.
In addition to allowing us to quickly describe the story, treatments
are particularly useful development and revision tools.
A treatment serves as the blueprint for a script. It's much easier
to make changes in a 5-page treatment than a 40-page script. So
it's wise to first develop a treatment and then to revise and refine
it. Once you (and your producer or clients) are happy with it,
then write a script based on the treatment.
Scenes are the building
blocks of film and video. They can be thought of as mini-stories
in that they have a beginning, middle and end. Scenes
should push either the story or character along. (If a scene doesn't
do either cut it out!) In preparing a scene-based treatment, number
and title each scene. Describe the scene with a few sentences or
a paragraph. If writing for broadcast or theatrical release, don't
forget to consider and address your act structure.
Once you've finished, you'll have a document that clearly and
succinctly describes the story and its development.
First a few simple rules that apply to all scripts. Always start by fading
up from black. We can dissolve from shot to
shot, but we always fade to and from black. At the end
of a program we always fade to black. The cut
is the default transition. Because of this we never have to specify cut
in a script. Always stick to standard nomenclature when specifying aural
and visual elements.
Formats: there are many different types of script formats. For
in-depth explanations of these I'd suggest reading Zettl's Television
Production Handbook. The two most frequently used formats are the
single-column "drama" (also known as "master screenplay")
script and the two-column "TV" or "Documentary" style
"Drama" or "Master Screenplay" scripts are well-suited
for fiction or storytelling. Here
is a drama script example from cybercollege.com. This style of script
focuses on communicating action and dialog, not describing specific shots.
This is because in film and TV dramas, art directors and cinematographers
are the ones who specify what we see, not the writers. Describing the
visual elements is best achieved through storyboards, which illustrate
composition along with talent and camera blocking.
"Two-column" scripts are the best choice for news, documentary,
commercial, and industrial video production. These scripts contain two
columns of information. The left-hand side contains video information
with audio on the right. Every single visual and audio element should
be specified with full descriptions in the appropriate column. Here
is an example of two-column script for a documentary. The nice thing
about two-column scripts is that at any point in time you can clearly
see exactly what audio goes with what visual. It also allows for much
more visual specification than the drama style script.
There are several different types of scripts used for multi-camera studio
production. The granddaddy of them all is the fully scripted format.
The fully scripted format specifies everything that is seen or
heard. This includes VTR cues, dialog, graphics, sounds and music. Typically
the director marks the script with camera numbers (Cam 1, Cam 2, etc.).
But before he or she can do this, they need a detailed and accurate floor
plan. After all, you need to know where the cameras and talent are before
specifying what camera can best provide a close up of your host or dolly
shot of the set. Here's a studio exercise
script to show you an example of a multi-camera studio script.
Scripts usually go through a number of revisions from the initial draft
to the final copy. It's a good idea with either style of script to include
a title and date or version number.
On Scripting Music Videos
2-column scripts work very well. You can easily put lyrics in the audio column. For the instrumental portions (without lyrics) try putting a marker (E.g. an asterisk) on each line to represent the rhythmic structure.
On scripting documentaries
A few students have asked if they need to write treatments and scripts
for documentaries. The answer is a resounding YES. Documentary is a broadly
used term covering a range of programs such as Nova, Nature, American
Experience, or programs seen on Discovery or the History
Channel. While some are exploratory, a majority resemble
essays in their structure.
Actual script used for "Elkinsville: Washed Away By Progress"
In my opinion, the exploratory approach is most suitable
for projects that evolve over time- projects that perhaps span years.
I watched one where a group of people tried to recreate the early settlers experience in Canada.
They started out making plans, gathering supplies, and then building
a boat. They took the boat up (or down) a river where they found a suitable
homesite, build a cabin, and then proceeded to live off the land. The
entire documentary spanned several years.
Starting out: Approach documentaries like you would with a written essay. Start with an introduction that contains the thesis idea. The body of the piece will convey the various arguments. End with a solid conclusion.
To produce the piece (and to write the script), embrace a technique employed by good attorneys: know the answers that your witnesses (interview subjects) will provide. In other words a good attorney will know the answer to the question he/she is asking- or at least have a pretty good idea of how they will answer. How do you find this out? By doing research and talking to your interview subjects in advance.
your content. What has been written or published about it already? Who
are the experts? What do you want to say, prove, show, or illustrate?
Who is your audience? What you want the viewers to do or think
after watching your piece is the objective.
Whether you are creating something informational, something to sell
an idea, or something to make people think a certain way (propaganda!),
you have to embed the nuggets of information. I call this my "ingredient
As you research, outline, and refine your project, you learn more about
the subject and build and modify your ingredient list.
You will finally end up with a series of points or facts that are put
together in a logical manner. Threading these points into a compelling
story before shooting is perhaps one of the most challenging part of
writing documentaries. You need to visualize the flow from the fade up
from black at the beginning to how you treat the credits at the end. A solid beginning and clear conclusion
are essential. (If you have these
the stuff in the middle has a way of working itself out.)
Let's take an idea of making a promo for a band called the Tone-a-Matiks.
For starters you have to really think about your audience and the objective.
Is it an objective feature story to be inserted into a news magazine show,
or is it a self-promotional video for selling the band to night-club owners and booking
agents? The approach to these would be different, so you need to be crystal clear
about your objective- as it will effect the content.
Let's assume we'll make a marketing and promotional video. We need to
then create the "ingredient list" - which is the essential
facts and elements to include in the video. They might be:
- Description of the genre (alt rock with hip hop influence, etc.)
- The band loves playing dance music
- The band was just signed by a label
- The band can do cover tunes- but like to work in their own originals
- A new CD is underway
- They tour in the midwest now but would like to expand to the east
- testimonials from fans
- testimonials from night club owners
- performance footage
- footage of people dancing
- Quickie profiles of band members (if compelling. These are usually
Once you have your ingredient list you
can start threading it into a treatment.
- Open with a quick live clip, and people dancing. An animated graphic
of the band's name comes on screen.
- This is followed by a montage
of people saying how much they love to listen and dance to the Tone-a-Matiks.
a little bit more of performance footage we go to a music critic describing
the band's sound and genre.
- We could then go back to the performance
and hear a couple of testimonials from nightclub owners on how the
band really pack's them in.
- A couple of quick soundbites from the band describe how much fun
they have playing and that they can do covers but love playing originals.
Anyway, it's important to really think through this early on, then refine
and refine, eventually writing a script. The more you think about who
needs to say what, the more efficient you can be during the production
I have an example of a treatment for a documentary on my home
page (see Treatment
- Actual treatment and pitch for Elkinsville.)
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