How to Write a Treatment for a Short Film – Our Guide

First off – what's a treatment?

Here is my explanation of what a film treatment is: A film treatment is basically a storyboard of the overall story of the film, which is designed for plot reading.

For example, the following script treatment for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (released by Universal Studios on May 29, 2006) includes a lot of basic details: The actors in Dead Man's Chest are Deckard, Barbossa, and Dr. Jack Sparrow; the pirate prison is the Cursed cabin; the event that ignites the whole adventure is some kind of zombie attack on the harbor; a pirate ship is at sea and battling pirates... you know the rest.

What are the goals of a short film treatment?

You want to start the script with a strong, thought-provoking treatment, so the audience gets to know your hero and the world he lives in before you offer the core of your film's story.

You want the audience to feel an excitement at the prospect of getting to know your hero.

So how do you tell a treatment?

The more specific you can be, the better! If you start by saying "That's about as far as we're going to go in this short," you give the audience a strong sense that this is their project.

You'll likely need to use a few more words to describe the protagonist in a film, but the overarching story is key to making the audience feel excited.

Build a conceptual skeleton

Before you begin writing, build a conceptual skeleton of what your movie will be about, then fill in details over time, building up your story one small action scene at a time.

In preparation, look for answers to questions like:

  • What will the protagonist want?
  • How will the protagonist react to his situation?
  • What are the character's motivations?
  • What will the protagonist's actions look like?

Decide on the basic emotions of the protagonist.

You can use these as starting points, but make sure you know them before you start writing.

Do this for every character in the script.

Does this character want something? Does this character need help? How will this character react when things don't go his way?

Once you have that information, move on to developing characters. You'll need to develop motivation in the audience to help them relate to your protagonist.

The bigger your protagonist is, the easier it will be to build empathy. This can be as simple as letting your audience see the point of view of a character who would like to do something great, but can't because of obstacles.

Decide on the characters' arcs

Once you have your character backstory, it's time to flesh out the film's journey and characters to make them feel alive and relatable to the audience.

This is where you focus on making your protagonist into a person. Not just some abstract concept, but a human being with all the ups and downs and emotions that make life human.

These aren't just things you say.

Instead, think about each character's motivation and find ways to make them interesting. Be sure to keep your characters in the forefront of your mind as you write. It's important that you give your audience reasons for rooting for these characters to succeed.

Conceptualize your short (and its themes)

Once you have developed your main protagonist, it's time to focus on creating the core of your story. You don't necessarily want to create all the characters and story beats yourself.

However, you do want to focus on the elements of the story you want to tell.

Keep in mind what should come first: the story, the characters, the action, or all three? It's important that you give your story characters the chance to develop early on, before focusing on their arcs.

For example, if you want to establish a complicated romantic relationship, you'll want to make sure that the protagonist and the antagonist have complex characters first.

Be careful with details

There are a couple of key points to keep in mind about following the hero's journey. It's important to be true to your story's reality, but not so true that you fail to humanize characters.

Also, it's important to do your research. You'll likely find that many filmmaking methodologies involve extensive research into real life scenarios. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it's great for discovering new ideas and concepts.

Once you're done, put the finished script into the hands of a trusted editor to edit it. Once the editing process is done, use the final film as a catalyst to tell other stories. Tell how that hero's journey helped shape other people's lives.

Final thoughts

It can be hard to move through the hero's journey on your own.

When you're beginning to make a movie, it can feel like one giant chunk of blue skies and lonely sea stars.

When the credits roll, you may have a daunting list of titles and notes, but keep going. The more you put yourself in the shoes of the main character, the more the story feels real and resonant.