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Turn your book into a movie: 16 treatment tips

Today’s guest blogger, Kenneth Atchity, is one of my favorite new friends. In his former career, Ken, a Yale Ph.D., was a Fulbright professor of comparative literature. Today, he is a writer (his most recent novel is The Messiah Matrix), literary manager, and Emmy-nominated producer who’s made hundreds of deals in television and film. He has produced more than 30 films, including “Meg” (in post), “Angels in the Snow,” “Hysteria,” “The Lost Valentine” (one of my favorites on the Hallmark Channel!), “Erased,” “The Madams Family,” and “Joe Somebody.” He is well known among authors for teaching them the ins and outs of making a Hollywood deal.  BIG NEWS: Ken will be my guest on a special free teleseminar, Selling Your Story to Hollywood: A Conversation with a Movie Producer,” on May 18. Details here and below — reserve your seat now!

Turn your book into a movie: 16 treatment tips

Turn your book into a movie 2By 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.”

Register for our free teleseminar, Selling Your Story to Hollywood: A Conversation with a Movie Producer,” on Thursday, May 18, 2017, at this link now!

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”)

10. Sprinkle character-revealing dialogue throughout, enough to let the reader know what your characters sound like—and that they all sound different.

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”).

This is also called “the high concept,” which means it can be pitched simply—on a poster or to a friend on the phone.

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.

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  1. Thanks, Sandra and Kenneth. Sandra, you always have interesting guests and posts.

    “Trim the number of characters way back.”

    Yes, please. As a reader, I feel cheated when I invest time to remember specific character traits or actions that never contribute to the narrative. A cast of thousands might work for some directors, but I crave the more intimate approach.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I’m glad Ken’s advice resonates with you. And yes, I’m lucky to get some wonderful guest bloggers here!


  2. Hello, and thank you in advance. I wrote my book while visualizing it as a movie. “Dancing in the Stars—Carroll Webster, International Dance Luminary of Vaudeville and Hollywood,” has been out two years. Two English teachers said it’s very well done. Some who read it, unaware that I wrote it with a movie in mind, have responded that they can see it on the silver screen. I’m in the middle of converting it into a screenplay. Should I continue to develop the screenplay AND also write a treatment, or should I do just one of those?

  3. Great info here, Sandra. Thank you, Kenneth. I appreciate the brevity — short, sweet, and to the point. I’m assuming Kenneth is referring to works of fiction here, but I’m a bit disappointed in point #3: “Build a strong protagonist in the 20 to 50 star age range . . . ” I feel that’s kind of limiting, but I guess that’s the way the industry works. I’m working on a nonfiction project about an event that happened to my 55-year-old protagonist that I’ve thought might make a good film. Am I out of luck when it comes to generating interest from a film maker?

    1. Patti, many movies have been made from nonfiction books, so don’t toss that aside. The example that confuses me the most is “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” but Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon is an excellent example.


    2. Me too! My collaborator and I have followed this rule in our screenplay, but the ageism in Hollywood is disturbing. There are a lot of interesting people over 50 in real life–and they go to first-run movies.

      But this is an excellent list.

  4. Question to add to Teleseminar list:
    Is there any advantage to providing both the treatment AND the screenplay for a novel? Is there any advantage to submitting the screen play instead of a treatment?

    Back when I was working for Hollywood (1990s), they didn’t want the treatment if they could read the entire screenplay (or get coverage on the entire screenplay) but it was a bit of an “insiders club” situation as far as wanting screenplays from established screenwriters whose work they were already familiar with. But things can change, and often do very quickly in Hollywood. Is it different now?

    Question #2: does a book need to be a bestseller in order to be considered for a movie? Or at least to be written by a best-selling author?

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