Tuesday, January 13, 2009

All about writing better treatments

Can you teach creative writing is one of those vexed questions to which there's no simple, catch-all answer. Later this year I'll be helping teach an MA in creative writing, so I guess the truth will out then. I tend to believe craft can be taught, and craft can get you a long way as a writer. But natural storytellers also have an instinct for what they do. That'd explain why I kept getting novels published when I nil about my craft.

One skill I've developed is an ability to sculpt an easy-to-read treatment. Treatments are something that vex a lot of writers. They resent spending time on treatments, let alone polishing a treatment until it shine. Audiences never see treatments, the logic seems to be, so why bother making them exciting or fun? But treatments are seen by those with the power to advance your work - editors, script executives, producers and literary agents.

So here's what I do to make treatments read better: never uses words like that, just, trying, starting or any variations upon them. That can be eliminated from almost any sentence without altering the meaning or detracting from your prose - in fact, it makes your words leaner and pithier. Same with the word just. Trying and starting are both weak options for a treatment. Somebody opens a door or doesn't - trying to open a door is a bit feeble.

Never have one character telling another character anything. That's flat, dull and lifeless - exposition at its worse. Imbue that action with emotion. Characters should confess, warn, threaten, harangue, plead, beg, confront, challenge. Replace telling with an emotionally-active word and you load the sentence with fresh significance and power. Don't be afraid to pump up the drama, get the reader's pulse racing, make them care what comes next.

Adverbs are forbidden, obviously. Keep sentences short and pithy, make your paragraphs punchy and active. A lot of times you can replace the word and with a comma. Bill jumps the fence and runs toward Audrey is okay. Billy jumps the fence, sprints to Audrey is better. [Of course, I cheated by swapping a few words, but they were more active, more intense than the original version. Intensity good, dull and monotonous words are bad - mostly.]

Don't include dialogue unless it's absolutely vital. Summarise how characters feel, what they're communicating to each other - but don't get bogged down in actual conversations. Eliminate directional words like down and up, they don't often add much. Winnow away at your treatment, aim to cut a page from its length in total. Less is always more, especially when those with the power to advance your project are so starved of reading time.

None of these tricks will improve your plot, make your structure more sound or overcome the many other flaws you're hoping nobody will notice. But they make reading your treatment more pleasurable, which makes people more positive toward your work. A dull, turgid and overwritten treatment can kill enthusiasm within a page or three. A gripping treatment for a thriller, or a chilling treatment for a supernatural yarn can improve your chances.

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