Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Treatments are an opportunity, not a chore

I've noticed a correlation between the way some would-be novelists feel about synopsis writing and the way some screenwriting bloggers talk about doing treatments: it's a pain. It stifles creativity. Having to write an active, present tense prose distillation of your narrative is akin to flossing or taking out the garbage. In short: it's a chore.

To which I say: bollocks.

Writing a plot synopsis or treatment is a development opportunity. It's a way to road test your story, to see if it makes sense and has enough juice to sustain the intended length. Your synopsis or treatment is a road map for your plot, but planning the journey doesn't stop you taking diversions or short cuts once you're writing.

A great treatment or synopsis should leave the reader itching to get their hands on the finished script, screenplay or novel. But too many writers devote too little time, effort and craft skills to this crucial document. Why? Maybe they think it's not real writing. Maybe they're so brilliant they don't need to bother with intermediate steps.

If you're writing a feature film or the pilot for a TV series, you're hoping it will get made. For that to happen, somebody has to commit hundreds of thousands, even millions to your project. Why should they invest all that cash if you're too lazy or stubborn to produce a synopsis or treatment? Swallow a little pride.

What about would-be novelists who fear writing a synopsis up front will kill their enthusiasm for the putative book? That's an attitude I only tend to find in people who haven't written anything to length. Those who've done the hard slog and completed the first draft of a novel are less likely to be sniffy about the value of pre-planning.

I know, I know, in Stephen King's tome On Writing he talks about the fact he doesn't pre-plan his novels. He prefers a total journey of discovery approach. I meet the occasional scribe who's read that book and assumed King's example gives them carte blanche to avoid ever writing a synopsis. It works for him, why not them?

But that ignores all the chapters in On Writing where King talks about the years and years of learning his craft by writing short stories and novellas. King has spent decades acquiring enough skill that he can set off on a novel without a synopsis as his guide. Good for him. But unless you're Stephen King, a little foresight goes a long way.

I should stress that all of the above is merely my opinion. Your mileage may vary. Onwards!


Anonymous said...

Stephen King was also totally wasted a lot of time and can't even remember writing a load of his books. You're right though David - he'd done so much writing by the time he wrote his novels structure and storytelling were hard-wired into his brain. I think Tony Jordan's the same - but then that man is a story genius.

Treatments should be enjoyable. After fighting against them for years I'm now at the stage where it's almost the most exciting part. It's the part where you really get to dream and make up whatever you want. In many ways it's the most creative parts of the journey. Sure it may change and, tbh, it would be weird if it didn't. Once you start writing the script per se you realise you don't need that scene or maybe this would punch that story point up, etc. But what you have is a blueprint - a roadmap like you say - and bloody hell - if I'm going one one of those 14 day journeys there's no way I'd do it without some kind of map. I'd get lost otherwise!!

Al Rutherford said...

Totally agree. As someone who started writing dozens of short stories I still love writing prose and the treatment is a great way to get the story straight. It's also a heck of a lot easier to manipulate a 7-page treatment than a 100-page screenplay when new ideas, new plotlines etc kick in. As they do.