By Kenneth Atchity
Making a book into a film can cost producers anymore $1 million to $200 million, so this is clearly a major investment.
Talk to a story editor from any production company, studio, or agency “story department,” and they will tell you the weaknesses they see in novels submitted for film or television.
The story department’s report on the book’s potential for translation to film, referred to as “coverage,” is their feedback to the decision-making exec. It can make or break it for you — and it kills countless submissions.
The sad thing is, most writers will almost never even get as far as a coverage of their novel.
That’s often because of the book’s “treatment.”
What’s a treatment?
A treatment is a relatively short, written pitch of a story intended for production as a motion picture or television program. Written in user-friendly, informal language and focused on action and events, it presents the story’s overall structure and primary characters. It presents three clear acts and shows how the characters change from beginning to end.
You can write a better treatment if you know about the typical weaknesses story editors find as they prepare each option’s “coverage” (see my book, Writing Treatments that Sell). When you address these common weaknesses, you give your story a much better chance in the rooms where people decide whether, and how much, to spend on putting your story onto the screen.
Then you can use that treatment to market your story to Hollywood.
16 treatment tips that will help you turn your book into a movie
Here are 16 things to know about what your treatment needs to include.
1. Make sure your primary characters are relatable (that’s also called sympathetic).
If we can’t relate to them, we don’t feel for them. This addresses the comment: “I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”
2. Trim the number of characters way back so the treatment’s reader isn’t boggled by the immensity of the cast.
Also, keep the treatment focused as much as possible on the protagonist (and his or her love interest and/or ally) and antagonist. Comment: “There are way too many characters, and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”
3. Build a strong protagonist in the 20 to 50 star age range, one we want to root for.
Comment: “We don’t know who to root for.”
4. Make sure your hero or heroine takes action based on his or her motivation and mission, and forces others in your story to react.
Comment: “The protagonist is reactive, instead of proactive.”
5. Offer a new twist in your story even if it’s a familiar story to avoid the comment: “There’s nothing new here.”
6. Write it so the story editor reading your treatment can see three well-defined acts: act one (the setup), act two (rhythmic development, rising and falling action), and act three (climax, leading to conclusive ending).
Comment: “I can’t see three acts here.”
7. Make sure the turning point into the third act of your story is well-marked with a major twist that takes us there.
Comment: “There’s no Third Act…it just trickles out.”
8. Create a well-pronounced theme for your story (sometimes called “the premise”) in the treatment, so that the reader (audience) walks away with the feeling they’ve learned something important.
Comment: “At the end of the day, I have no idea what this story is about.”
9. Be sure there’s plenty of action in your story.
Action means dramatic action, of which there are two kinds: action and dialogue. Action is obvious:
She slams the door in his face.
The bullets find their target, and he slumps in his chair.
The second plane crashes into the Pentagon.
But good dialogue is also action:
“Would you do something for me now?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (Hemingway, “Hills like White Elephants”)
Comment: “There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the characters sound like.”
11. Make sure the plot is hidden not overt, dropping clues act by act so the audience can foresee its possible outcomes.
Comment: “At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist before he’s killed.”
12. Ruthlessly go through your treatment and remove anything that even hints of contrivance.
The audience will allow any story one gimme, but rarely two, and never three, before they lose their belief. Everything needs to be grounded in the story’s integrity.
Comment: “The whole thing is overly contrived.”
13. Make it well-paced, with rising and falling action, twists and turns, cliffhangers ending every act, etc.
Comment: “There is no real pacing.”
14. Be able to pitch your story in a single punch line (aka “logline”), and put that line at the beginning of your treatment in bold face:
She’s a fish out of water—but she’s a mermaid (“The Little Mermaid,” “Splash”).
He’s left behind alone. On Mars (“The Martian”).
An inventor creates an artificial woman who’s so real she turns the table on her creator, locks him up, and escapes (“Ex Machina”).
Comment: “How do we pitch it? There’s no high concept.”
15. Make sure your story feels like a movie, which includes taking us to places we’ve probably never been, or rarely been.
A movie transports us to locations we want to feel, like Antarctica, or the Amazon jungle, or a moon of Saturn, or, in movies I’ve done, a brothel in New Orleans (The Madams Family), the experimental lab of the inventor of the vibrator in Victorian England (Hysteria), a mountain cabin during a blizzard (Angels in the Snow), or the Amityville house in Long Island (Amityville: The Evil Returns).
Comment: “There are no set pieces, so it doesn’t feel like a movie.”
16. Get someone who knows the industry well to read your treatment and give you dramatic feedback on it before you send it out.
Comment: “The writer shows no knowledge of movies!”
Of course anyone with the mind of a sleuth can list films that got made despite one or more of these comments being evident. But for novelists frustrated at not getting their books made into films, that’s small consolation.
If you regard your career as a business instead of a quixotic crusade, plan your novel’s treatment to make it appealing to filmmakers–and to avoid the story department’s buzz-killing comments.