Simon van der Borgh’s Treatment Heaven @ SWF 2009

The recent Screenwriters Festival in Cheltenham offered a wealth of information and opportunities to almost 500 professional and pre-pro screenwriters. Here’s the first instalment of my session notes: Simon van der Borgh’s Ten Steps to Treatment Heaven, a very entertaining and useful presentation. Apologies if there seem to be only eight steps – I assure you it’s all there, I must have missed a heading or two along the way.

Your piece of gold, capturing: your film’s THEME = what is it REALLY about; EMOTION = why is the audience going to care about it; and PHILOSOPHY = what is it exploring for you and for the audience?

Reduce your story to the basic elements. Play around with different versions of the famous 25 words to explore different angles.
Work on character studies and act outlines.

1-page synopsis
Start with three sentences, one per act, and expand to a one-page synopsis with info about “what’s it about”, characters and genre. Your 25-word logline is the first paragraph of this synopsis, followed by the summary in present tense. Point out conflict and resolution. Mention the names of the main characters. Make sure you are in control – do not give the reader room to invent anything.

4-page outline
Expand the synopsis to four pages; include five or six key moments.

8-page sequence breakdown
Act I – 2 pages = 2 sequences (set-up & build dilemma).
Act II – 4 pages/sequences: introduce new characters, subplots, new challenges; explore the threat of the plot; a new force comes in (often love sequence); get back to the main story.
Act III – 2 pages/sequences.
Ask a dramatic question for each sequence – express it as a question for the main character.

Beat outline
Little known in the UK & Europe; 40-60 beats.
Describe each scene in two sentences. One for action, one in italics for the significance of the action = test whether the scene is justified. If not, delete. (Prompted by an audience question, SVdB softened this a little: remember that sometimes the characters – and the audience – need a breather.)

Remove the italics from the beat outline = basis for your 12-15-page treatment. Act I 3-4 pages, act II 6-8 pages, act III 3-4 pages.

Selling treatment
Unfortunately time ran out, so we did not get round to discussing this…

Q & A
Q: How to feed the backstory in to act II?
A: Use the main character.
Q: Should you use this to test the waters and possibly save yourself the trouble of writing the full screenplay, i.e. write it only when the treatment sells?
A: Absolutely. Use this tool to free yourself up to write the first draft.


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