Saturday, April 11, 2009

Writing a treatment or writing a synopsis?

Over the last 2 months I have been involved in writing treatments for two different film projects. It has got me thinking about the process and how I might use it more for other kinds of projects in the future.
A treatment is a short piece of prose, usually produced as a precursor to the writing of a full screenplay. There seem to be several recognised formats for treatments. If you get to send your treatment out to a producer, these formats would doubtless be important to research. But I am presently concerned with using the treatment as a tool to help the writing process.
How is a treatment different from the synopsis of a novel? It is different in degree. A novel synopsis tends to be one or two pages long. Thus the story of a novel of 100,000 words is reduced to between 500 and 1000 words. There is far less story in a screenplay than in a novel. A screenplay of 90 pages (approximately an hour and a half of screen time) is reduced to a treatment of perhaps 9 pages.
The formats are so different that we can't rely on these figures as a mathematical comparison. But the ratios are revealing none-the-less. Moving from novel to synopsis represents a reduction of 1000 to 1. Moving from screenplay to treatment is more like 10 to 1.
Thus, synopsis writing is a much hated occupation. Novelists - myself included - tend to dislike the brutality of the process. Hacking out all the elegant sub-plots and layering of a story. Whereas, I have found treatment writing to be tremendously creative and enjoyable.
Why not write a treatment of a novel as an aid to writing the novel itself? Looking at those ratios, a treatment of a novel would need to be 10,000 words long. A substantial investment. And would it not take away the joy of discovery that I feel whilst writing the novel? I am not sure. Perhaps I should give it a go.


damiengwalter said...

I have read of novelists who write full treatments of their work, and of others who have the story worked out in that level of detail before writing. My concern would be that a treatment would make the story very plot focused. I could see that working for thrillers and other novels where plot is central, but it might work against more character driven writing.

Rod Duncan said...

Hi Damien,

I agree. With a novel it would make the thing more plot-driven. The case of the screenplay, I think, is different - simply because it is so much shorter in terms of plot, and that kind of organic character/relationship development still has room to develop during the writing process without throwing the treatment completely out of kilter.

As for thrillers etc, I don't think it can be a case of character OR plot. Good stories of any kind need a ballance of the two. The best thrillers have great character development, just as the best literary works have a compelling plot.

That's my goal in writing, anyway.

Thanks for the comment.

Paul Lamb said...

Good sir, I write a synopsis of each chapter before I begin the actual writing. This can vary from one thousand to several thousand words. I have found it hugely productive for my work; I suspect it is because I get the "imaginative" work done in one stage and the fingers-to-keyboard work done in a different stage. (I don't have to figure out what comes next while I am writing the story, that is.) Some of what I do in this prewriting is identify psychological turns the character must take (and how I will show that) as well as the tone I want the chapter to sustain.

I noted in a recent post on my humble blog that I have something like 35,000 words in "notes" for my novel, which will probably be 100,000 words long in the first draft.

Is it fair to make the comparison of 1000 to 1 and 10 to 1? How many words are on the page of a screenplay compared to the same of a novel? I suppose the word count ratio is also not an accurate basis for comparison. Nonetheless, I see a value (for myself) in pre-writing a synopsis. I'll get back to you on the pleasure of writing a synopsis after I have written the novel.

Rod Duncan said...

Great comment, Paul. Many thanks. I do like your idea of writing a chapter summary before writing each chapter. It would certainly help in the work of sculpting the flow of emotion through the chapter - to have that idea in your head before you set off to write it.

I think I do this without actually writing it down - think through the chapter in my head. But I can also see the value of writing it out. I might experiment with your method. I can also see that as a useful idea in teaching people to write.

Thanks again.