A short film treatment is a brief document that outlines the basic story, characters, structure, and key scenes of a short film project. Filmmakers use short film treatments to flesh out their creative vision on paper before investing the time and resources into writing a full screenplay.
Treatments act as a vital pitching tool to attract financing, and talent and bring a film idea to life. They allow filmmakers to crystallize the core narrative of a film and get early feedback before the intensive screenwriting process begins.
This definitive guide examines exactly what a short film treatment entails and provides a step-by-step walkthrough of how to write an effective and compelling treatment that sets up your short film for success.
What is the Purpose of a Short Film Treatment?
A short film treatment accomplishes several critical functions:
- It allows the filmmaker to flesh out the basic story, characters, tone, and style of the film before committing to a full script. This upfront clarity can save significant time and prevent dead ends later on.
- It serves as an early selling document to pitch the film to potential investors, attract actors, get the crew on board, and demonstrate that the basic concept is viable.
- It gives everyone involved in the production from the director and producers to the cast and crew a clear guidepost to reference throughout the filmmaking process.
- It functions like a film proposal, encapsulating the main vision, narrative, and cinematic elements in a compact form.
Essentially, the treatment gives both readers and the filmmakers themselves a snapshot of what the final film will look like before costly screenwriting and production begin. A compelling treatment provides confidence that the core idea works and gets others excited about bringing the vision to life.
Elements to Include in a Short Film Treatment
While treatments have some flexibility in form, most short film treatments include the following key elements:
A logline is a one or two-sentence summary that distills the heart of the story and clearly states the central conflict or situation. For example, here is a logline for the short film Man With a Plan:
“An eccentric man decides to come up with an elaborate plan to win back the love of his life.“
The logline should capture the essence of who the story revolves around and what predicament they face.
The synopsis provides a brief overview of the full narrative arc in a concise single paragraph. It summarizes the beginning hook, main conflict, key characters, major plot points, and resolution.
The synopsis gives readers a generalized idea of the storyline. For the film Man With a Plan, the synopsis might read:
“Reeling from a breakup with his long-term girlfriend, a quirky man decides to overcome his pain and get her back by meticulously planning and executing an over-the-top gesture filled with references from their relationship.”
Story and Plot Outline
The next component fleshes out the complete narrative in more detail. The storyline can be broken down into the basic three acts – beginning, middle, and end. Major narrative beats and plot points that drive the story forward are described in 2-3 sentences for each act.
This section provides a solid sense of the full plot progression from hook to dramatic climax without giving away all the specific details and surprises. The goal is to showcase the compelling escalating conflict and stakes.
For Man With a Plan, the story outline hits on plot points like:
- The protagonist’s world is turned upside down by a painful breakup
- Inspired by advice from a quirky friend, he designs an elaborate plan to remind his ex of their happiest moments and win her back.
- Just as his intricate plan seems on track for success, an unexpected twist threatens to ruin everything.
- He has to decide if his desperate gesture is what she truly wants or if it’s better to walk away.
The main characters who drive the story should be described in 1-2 sentences. Give the name and any key descriptions about their personality or background and their role.
SAM HENDERSON, late 20s – An offbeat idealist whose heartbroken desperation pushes him to carry out an over-the-top plan to remind his ex-girlfriend of their connection.
GRACE WILSON, late 20s – Sam’s level-headed ex-girlfriend who is unsure of reconciling despite still having feelings for him.
MARCUS JAMES, 30s – Sam’s outgoing longtime friend who encourages him to follow his unusual romantic schemes.
This gives readers a general sense of who is important in the story without lengthy background or complex motivations.
The treatment should describe around 5-10 key scenes that represent crucial story moments in 2-3 sentences. These may include opening and closing images, the inciting incident, plot twists, the climax where the central conflict comes to a head, and any highly emotional or revealing scenes.
Choose dynamic scenes that put the characters’ motivations and flaws on display. For Man With a Plan, key scenes could involve:
- The opening shot of Sam listlessly going through mementos of his relationship.
- The conversation where Marcus first plants the seed of Sam’s elaborate plan.
- Sam spying on Grace at work to gain insight before making his move.
- The moment during Sam’s plan when everything goes awry.
- The final scene is where Grace gives her answer to Sam’s dramatic gesture.
Visual Approach and Style
This section notes any distinct visual style, cinematography, editing patterns, production design elements, or other stylistic choices that help immerse the audience.
Is it fast-paced handheld camerawork or elegant dolly shots? Intimate close-ups or expansive landscapes? This gives readers insight into the world of the story.
For Man With a Plan, notes might indicate:
- Pop style using bright colors, snappy editing, and stylized graphics to depict Sam’s quirky imagination.
- Smooth camera moves and lush score during romantic flashbacks.
- Cinematic lighting and naturalistic performances to ground the emotional reunion scene.
Tone and Film Influences
What is the overall tone or mood? Is it a light-hearted comedy or a tense thriller? Are there specific films, directors, or genres that influenced the story? Naming them provides artistic context.
For example, Man With a Plan could reference:
- Quirky comedic tone similar to (500) Days of Summer
- Dramatic romance inspired by Before Sunrise trilogy
- Visual style influenced by director Wes Anderson
Treatments vs. Screenplays – Key Differences
It’s important to understand that a short film treatment is not the same as a screenplay – they serve different functions and are written at different stages. Here are some of the main differences:
- Length – A short film treatment is typically 3-5 pages while a screenplay ranges from 10-30 pages. Treatments only summarize key elements while screenplays have full details.
- Purpose – The treatment’s purpose is to pitch the concept and get early feedback. The script is written to actually produce the film.
- Details – A treatment briefly describes characters, story, and key scenes. The script provides shot-by-shot actions, exact dialogue, location specifics, and scripts out everything shown on screen.
- Focus – Treatments prioritize summarizing the narrative while scripts focus on dramatizing it through actions and dialogue in distinct scenes.
A treatment should never contain lengthy scene descriptions, blocks of dialogue, or excessive production details – that comes in the screenwriting phase. The treatment extracts only the vital bones of the story.
Step-by-Step Process for Writing a Treatment
Now that we’ve covered the core components, let’s discuss the nuts and bolts process of writing a compelling short film treatment from scratch:
Research and Brainstorming
Like any project, start by researching your story concept to help generate ideas. Look for inspiration in sources like news stories, documentaries, narratives about relatable experiences, and themes that personally excite you.
Brainstorm character archetypes, settings, time periods, moods, social issues, and interesting scenarios to get creative juices flowing. Let the core idea marinate before rushing into the writing.
Identify Core Concepts and Characters
Once an appealing concept emerges, identify the central narrative focused on an engaging protagonist. Who is at the heart of the story? What is their desire, struggle, and worldview? Why will the audience relate to them?
Figure out any other main characters that play key roles as allies, antagonists, or someone who helps the protagonist reach their goal. Understand the core character motivations.
Write the Logline and Synopsis
Distill your story down to a one-sentence logline stating the conflict at its essence.
Expand this logline into a one-paragraph synopsis covering the basic beginning, middle, and climax of the full narrative. Make sure it sets up an engaging scenario.
Breakdown the Complete Narrative Arc
Map out the complete A to Z story progression. Outline the major plot points and turning points that structurally compose the full three acts. Jot down 2-3 sentences for each key story beat.
Aim for about 10-15 narrative beats that convey conflict leading to climax. Include the opening hook, inciting incident, rising action, setbacks, climax resolution, and takeaway ending.
Describe the Visual Approach and Style
Determine the cinematic style and visual language that brings the story to life. List any distinctive aesthetics for camerawork, lighting, production design, color scheme, editing rhythms, etc. that immerse viewers in the story’s world.
What directorial vision and influences will shape the look and feel on screen?
Write Concise Scene Descriptions
Write 2-3 sentence descriptions of 5-10 pivotal scenes where important plot points unfold. Choose dynamic turning points that reveal something new about characters or escalate conflict.
Focus on highly cinematic, emotional, or atmospheric moments that have visual impact when translated to screen. Avoid writing generic filler scenes.
Refine the Language
Go through the treatment and refine the concise writing until the descriptions have a compelling flow. Tweak the tone and phrasing of sentences to create intrigue and excitement.
Cut any excess words to keep the pace tight. Emphasize active, visual language that sparks the imagination. Remove any dense blocks of text.
Tips for Writing an Effective Short Film Treatment
Follow these tips when drafting your short film treatment to maximize quality:
- Keep it brief – Your treatment should be about 3-5 pages in standard screenplay format. Avoid length beyond 10 pages max.
- Use vivid, visual descriptions – Paint a picture of the story without overwriting. Active verbs, emotional adjectives, and conciseness are key.
- Focus on crucial scenes – Don’t try to outline the whole story beat-by-beat. Summarize only the most pivotal moments and plot points.
- Maintain mystery – Don’t reveal every narrative detail and surprise. Keep some intrigue for the scripting process.
- Avoid dense blocks of text – Use lots of paragraph breaks and white space. Treatments should be a quick, engaging read.
- Establish consistent tone – The style and voice of the writing should match the genre and feel of the story.
- Get feedback early – Have trusted peers review your treatment to get constructive input before moving forward.
Remember that the treatment should capture the big-picture vision while leaving room for specifics to develop during screenwriting. Let the core idea shine through.
Conclusion – What is a Short Film Treatment?
A short film treatment is a critical first step in the development process that allows filmmakers to articulate their creative concepts on paper before production. Treatments help craft a compelling pitch to get a short film greenlit.
The treatment summarizes the storyline, characters, tone, style and key scenes in a concise document without the exhaustive detail required in a screenplay.
While treatments have some flexibility, most contain the core elements of a logline, synopsis, outline, characters, key scenes, and visual approach.
Writing an effective treatment requires identifying the hook, mapping the narrative arc, and describing critical scenes in an engaging, visual manner without giving everything away.
Paying attention to structure, visuals, and brisk pacing results in a treatment that generates excitement to see the story brought to life on screen.
With a focused treatment as their guide, filmmakers can move forward into the screenwriting process with confidence that their short film idea tells a cohesive story with the power to resonate with audiences.
The treatment lays the necessary groundwork for crafting a compelling script and producing a film that fulfills its creative promise from concept to completion.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a film treatment example?
A film treatment example is a 3-5 page document that summarizes the story, characters, style, and major scenes of a movie idea. It includes sections like a logline, synopsis, character descriptions, visual approach, and key scene summaries.
Do you need a treatment for a short film?
Yes, it is recommended to write a treatment before creating a short film screenplay. Treatments allow filmmakers to refine the core story first and get early feedback before investing significant time in scriptwriting.
What needs to be included in a film treatment?
A film treatment should include a logline, synopsis, outline of the full story arc, descriptions of primary characters, summaries of 5-10 key scenes, the visual style, and the overall tone.
What is the purpose of a film treatment?
The purpose is to flesh out the story, tone, and cinematic elements of a movie idea on paper before writing the screenplay. It acts as a selling tool for securing financing and talent.
What is the difference between a treatment and an outline?
A treatment summarizes the entire story arc while an outline breaks it down scene by scene. Treatments focus on big-picture narrative while outlines cover more granular beat-by-beat details.
How many pages should a short film treatment be?
A short film treatment should be 3-5 pages long. Brevity allows the core idea to shine through before developing specifics later.
What makes a successful short film?
Key elements of successful short films include a compelling hook, clear central story/conflict, intriguing characters, dynamic visuals, emotion, and succinct storytelling without filler.
What does a show treatment look like?
A TV show treatment summarizes the concept, characters, settings, overall tone, and possible episode plots similar to a film treatment but focused on the unique needs of serial storytelling.