Step 4: Draft a Compelling Treatment

By now you have a living story in your head. It’s scratching and clawing from the inside, trying to get out. To this point, you have barely dipped your pen in the inkwell by writing a logline and theme. You have started to organize your approach by putting together a story canon. It’s now time to craft a story skeleton upon which you can later hang all of the necessary organs and flesh (in some cases quite a gory endeavor). Time to add to your treatment document.

Good treatments grant a quick view of your story in full color without the encumbrance of weighty detail. This is the first time you get to step into your story world and feel your way around. The process of writing a treatment forces you to think about the logic of your plot, the feasibility of your characters, and the credibility of your conflict. As you write your treatment, some facets of your story begin to gleam while other murkier parts present puzzles for you to work out.

It is vital to remember while writing your treatment that great stories are a byproduct of strong characters and character motivation. Therefore, you should spend much of your treatment outlining your main character’s primary goal. Don’t get hung up in sideline stories. Don’t start your treatment with how the opening scene will unfold. Just concentrate on the generalities.

The Anatomy of a Treatment
A good treatment can be broken down into 2 parts: the head and the body. The head of an effective treatment contains 3 objects, the story working title, the logline, the theme, and voice and inspirational likenesses.

The body of your treatment should include the following items: 3-paragraph synopsis, a list of critical plot points and their definitions (to be discussed in detail in a later article), a 3-act synopsis, including at least 5 major conflicts between the protagonist and the antagonist (also to be discussed in detail in a later article).

Your Treatment Header
Let’s start with the easy part: the header. You have, if you have been following along with these articles and finished the assignments, already created a document called TREATMENT_YOURSTORYTITLE.DOC and included it in your story canon. At the top of the first page of this document, you have written your story title. You have also included sections for your logline and your theme. We are going to add a third section to your treatment header, entitled: Voice and Inspirational Likenesses.



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Voice and Inspirational Likenesses
All stories are written their own voices. Voice is often defined as being the perspective of the story, such as omniscient, 1st person, present/past tense, etc. But voice goes beyond mere semantics. Voice refers to the tone and tempo of the story. Is the story gritty and gripping? Is it sensitive and sympathetic? The story may be written in omniscient, third person tense; but does it read more like an objective news article, or does it seem to roll off from the tongue of someone who actually experienced the story? Someone who was actually there?

Think about it, the 1st person perspective and voice of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is vastly different that the 1st person perspective voice of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Life of Pi explores the innocents of youth under extreme duress while Twilight rests in teen infatuation and the sexual tension that arises from a youth love triangle. Although both books are written in 1st person, they tell their stories in hugely different voices.

The important thing about voice is to make it consistent from page one to the end of your novel. To divert from your story’s voice can shake your readers up and even cause them to put your story down.

You have already written a theme for your story. Theme has a lot to do with voice. Read your theme to yourself a few times and think about what voice would best support your theme.

Inspirational likenesses are stories that inspire you. Stories that, more specifically, inspire the current story you are working on. Inspirational likenesses come from books, movies, newspaper articles, etc., that you have read or viewed that seem to have the same voice that you intend for your story.

Become inspired by other works. Roll the expertise of great authors into the voice of your story. Do you want your story to have a gritty, pulp fiction feel to it? You might consider reading Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. Do you want your story to be playful and romantic? Why not pick up some Janet Evanovich books? Do you want your story to have a lot of action but remain humorous? Think Jim Butcher.

By the way, if you don’t read often and omnivorously, you have no hope of writing a compelling novel. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t read what others write, both the good and the horrible (I believe you can learn just as much from reading a horrible novel as a good one) you can’t expect to have the instruments to guide you through the process of writing compelling fiction. By using other’s work to influence your own, you are only strengthening your story. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are stealing. Even the best writers stand on the shoulders of those who have written before them. Learn from what you read. Don’t plagiarize, but, by all means, be inspired by works that you love and would love to emulate.

I find that some authors are simply too good for me to ever have hope to emulate. Whenever I read Ray Bradbury, I get depressed. He’s so good that the god of writing must have touched him at birth. That god seems to have ignored me. There are other authors, John Steinbeck, Neil Gaimen, even Stephen King in certain works (i.e. Salem’s Lot, still the best freaking vampire story ever written), whom I will never even approach in quality of prose, character dimension, and style. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hone my craft by reading and being inspired by these and other great authors.

Under the Voice and Inspirational Likenesses section of your treatment, you might write something like this:

Voice and Inspirational Likenesses
This story will be set in a world cracking at the seams with violence, greed, and selfishness. The world will resemble society as found in the novel The Stand by Stephen King after the disease, Captain Trips, wreaks the countryside. The main character, Tuck, will be resourceful and roguish. His every action will reflect his desire to get ahead no matter whose neck he steps on. The end results of his actions will be for the good of the world, but only because it benefits him. He will behave much like Angus Thermopyle in Stephen R. Donaldson’s novel, The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story. The tone will be bleak, terrible, and mean, written from a 3rd person omniscient perspective, though much of the story’s philosophy will be cast from Tuck’s point of view.

The 3-paragraph Synopsis
So far it seems we have done everything except write a story. We have put down a logline. We have explored theme. We have thought about a few inspirational works to get the gears turning and to help establish voice. But, alas, you have nothing written down to indicate what your story is about.

Don’t despair; the exercises you have performed so far have ramped you up to the next phase of the project, the 3-paragraph synopsis. When I write a novel, I go through many steps before I get to actually writing the first line of the finished copy. The 3-paragraph synopsis is the first time I actually get to explore the plot of my stories. I love this part of the process because it forces me to approach and deal with problems in the upcoming story.

Why 3 paragraphs? The answer is simple; most things come in 3 parts, even an excellent meal. Think about it; you sit down at your favorite restaurant. You order an excellent entre. When it comes, you craft in your head the best way to consume it and get maximum pleasure. Your meal has a beginning, in the form of the first tantalizing bite, a middle, composed of side journeys through less succulent but necessary parts of the culinary experience, and finally an end, the coup de grace, the part of the meal you leave on your plate until last, the flavor of the meal that you most want to stay on as the last, triumphant taste in your mouth. Like a perfect meal, every good story has a strong beginning, middle, and end. In theater, and in film, these three components are referred to as acts I, II, and III.

In your 3-paragraph synopsis, commit one paragraph to each of these acts. Each paragraph must be short. Don’t get hung up on the details, they will come to you as you write, but resist the urge to turn this synopsis into a lengthy description of every setting, conflict, sequence, and scene. You only want a top-level view of your story.

Let’s break down the structure of your 3-paragraph synopsis.

Paragraph 1: Act I
Use 5 to 10 sentences to introduce your main characters (protagonist and antagonist). You might introduce other characters if they are essential to your story. Introduce the critical point that throws these two characters into conflict. Describe the game changing event at the end of act 1 that forces your main character out of his normal world into a new world where he must resolve the conflict his way or become beholden to the will of the antagonist’s goal.

Paragraph 2: Act II
This paragraph describes a series of consecutive conflicts between the protagonist and antagonist. They will tangle with one another in several ways throughout this meatier part of the story. These conflicts might not be directly between the two key characters. Your antagonist might have a conflict with one of the antagonist’s minions or sidekicks. No matter what the conflicts are, make sure that they ramp upward in intensity until they culminate into a disaster. This disaster should happen at the end of your act II paragraph. It should reflect the lowest point in your antagonist’s struggle.

Paragraph 3: Act III
I call this the end game paragraph (I will discuss the end game in more detail later). Picture a couple of gunslingers in the middle of the street. They sweat and sneer, both itching to draw their weapons and fire. At the end of this excruciatingly suspenseful game, only one man will stand. The endgame is a showdown. It’s the final conflict between your two main characters. This paragraph should outline in a few sentences how your antagonist will fare during and at the end of the end game. This paragraph should wrap up with a resolution. Does your antagonist win? Does he lose? What does he learn in the process? Remember to keep it short.

The Treatment Thus Far: A Practical Application
Now, just to show you that I practice what I preach, I am going to continue the story of our old friend, Gus the Plumber. I feel I’m starting to get to know this guy. I’m even starting to like him. Let’s see how his story works in treatment form.

The Integrity of Gus the Plumber (A New Working Title) – Treatment

LOGLINE
A plumber battles a pandimentional super demon and its minions.

THEME
The greatest valor comes from the humblest beginnings.

VOICE AND INSPIRATIONAL LIKENESSES
This story, above all, will be fun. Gus will be a humorous, everyday man who is not rattled by the transdimensional beings he faces. He’s resourceful and kind, but not unwilling to use lethal means when facing these creatures. The creatures will be straight out of the Cthulu Mythos. The works of Lovecraft and Henry Kuttner will be great reference material, but this story will have more of a light feel, much like Odd Thomas in Koontz’s novels or Harry Dresden in Jim Butchers Dresden file books. It will be written in 3rd person omniscient perspective, but much of Gus’s vernacular and lighthearted approach to scary circumstances will be rolled into the copy.

TREATMENT
3-paragraph Synopsis
Gus, a plumber, discovers an increasing number of pandimensional beings lately in his work. These beings tend to have tentacles and auras of indescribable terror. Gus’s friend Mark Atwood, has recently taken a job with Harper Plumbing, run by Jeremy Harper. Mark has agreed to be Gus’s best man at his wedding. When Mark falls off the map, Gus decides to go speak to Harper about his friend, in lieu of the ferocious creatures he has discovered in his job. Harper throws Gus out on his ear. Gus knows something is wrong, that perhaps there has been foul play. He decides to investigate further. He steals a Harper plumbing uniform and dons a disguise of facial hair and a hat. His plan is to attend a Harper plumbing staff workshop. When he attends the workshop, he discovers that Harper has called up a pandimentional elder named Vorvadoss. The Elder recognized Gus as an imposter and marks him as a sacrifice.

Gus’s struggles with beings from beyond heat up. He battles more and more of them. They know his name and, because he is not under Vorvadoss’s mind control, they want him either dead, or under their master’s thumb. The conflict with Harper’s plumbing also heats up. Harper is under the impression that, with spells recovered from ancient texts, he has Vorvadoss under his control. He feels that he is using Varvadoss’s power against him. He is even so bold as to start a demon hunting arm of his business and has supplied his plumbers with powerful weapons to excise pipes and people of evil entities. Gus tries to convince Harper that he can’t handle Vorvadoss and that Harper is playing his role perfectly as a pawn in Vorvadoss’s grand scheme of bringing his failing dimension into Gus’s world and dominating over all of humanity. Harper throws Gus out and tells him to watch his back. Now Gus has 2 lethal enemies, the minions of Vorvadoss and any plumber wearing a Harper’s Plumbing uniform. With Gus’s wedding on the way, he has to contain the evil minions and make peace with Harper before he ties the knot. Otherwise, he feels he will bring his fiancé into danger. Under this duress, Gus goes after Varvadoss preemptively. He has a big faceoff with the Elder and ends up placing him into some kind of dimensional limbo. Relieved, Gus decides not to cancel his wedding. The story comes to a climax when, at Gus’s wedding, the minions of Vorvadoss and a gang of mind-controlled Harper plumbers show up. Their goal is to sacrifice Gus’s fiancé as part of a ritual to bring Vorvadoss back from limbo. Gus stops them from killing her, but her blood is shed, freeing Vorvadoss from his bounds. Vorvadoss’s dimension begins flooding into Gus’s world, filling the sky with black, killing plants, souring the air.

Gus has no choice. He must figure out a way to either kill or imprison Vorvadoss permanently. With standard plumbing equipment, Gus taps into a third dimension, the resting place of a rival elder god, and brings him to life. Vorvadoss and the other Elder fight. All the while, Gus and works to pump the bulk of Vorvadoss’s dimension out of the human world. While the two elders fight, Gus weakens them by taking away their natural element. In the end, Vorvadoss triumphs over the other elder and turns on Gus. It becomes a personal battle between Vorvadoss and Gus. Gus triumphs, killing Vorvadoss. But is Vorvadoss really dead? Gus doesn’t know. Gus and his fiancé finally get married in a simple ceremony and all ends well for Gus; or does it?

THREE ACT BREAKDOWN
(To be discussed and written later)

As you read through this partial treatment, the story of Gus the plumber becomes more clear. Some of the details are beginning to shine through. However, some of the plot problems that I am going to have to work out are beginning to glare. Some examples are: What interest does Vorvadoss actually have in Gus? There must be a concrete reason that a being of such power would bother tangling with a plumber. Another problem: Why does the final conflict take place at Gus’s wedding? I feel this is a great location for the story to climax; but there must be a reason for this setting. Could the wedding date have some kind of significance? Could the location have special meaning? How does Gus pump Varvadoss’s dimension away? What equipment does he use? I know I have to work these and other problems out before I write the story. Better to work them out now, during the pre-writing process, then to write myself into a corner and give up later.

It’s important to note that new characters have been opened in the 3-paragraph synopsis. These characters must be documented into the characters document in the story canon. The character notations so far might look like this:

Gus Saxy – Protagonist, self-taught plumber and handyman. Gus owns his own plumbing business, which consists of him and a single truck full of tools.

Vorvadoss – Antagonist. Lovecraftian elder god. Wears a cloak and hood. He usually appears enveloped in green flames. He can also appear in human form.

Jeremy Harper – Arrogant owner of a large plumbing outfit. His business consists of twenty trucks and corporate offices.

Mark Atwood – One of Gus’s best friends. Gus asks Mark to be his best man at his wedding. Mark eventually sells out to Harper Plumbing for the money.

Gus’s Fiancé (to be named later) – Gus’s love interest throughout the story. She’s an average woman, not overly attractive, funny, enjoyable company. She loves Gus to death.

Your Assignment
The time has finally arrived for you to explore your story. You should have a partial treatment written with a working title, a logline, and a theme. Your assignment is to add the following elements to your treatment:

First, finish your treatment header by adding a Voice and Inspirational Likenesses section. Start by adding a header, then put down a few sentences as I have outlined in this article. Don’t worry about setting this section of your treatment in stone. You can change any element of your treatment at any time as you continue along your path. Once you have added the Voice and Inspirational Likenesses section to your treatment, congratulate yourself; you have finished your treatment head. Time to get to the body of your treatment.

Time for the second half of your assignment. Begin the body of your treatment document with a 3-paragraph synopsis of your story. Don’t worry about detail at this phase. Merely rough in 3 paragraphs that correspond to act I, act II, and act III of your novel. Again, don’t worry if your synopsis doesn’t feel perfect. It’s going to have problems. Your 3-paragraph synopsis marks the point where you start working these problems out. Like the rest of your treatment document, you can come back and change your 3-paragraph synopsis at any time.

Good luck. Until next time, happy writing.

Go to the next step.

About The Author

Craig Nybo

Craig Nybo writes novels, screenplays, and short stories. He also composes and records music. Craig lives in Kaysville, Utah with his lovely wife and children.

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