Writing Nowadays–The Treatment of Treatments

Today we have another segment from Writing the Paranormal Novel. In this case, it’s all about treatments.

Years ago when I started writing novels, you hit up editors with a proposal package that included a 20-page synopsis and the first three chapters.  If you were lucky, the editor wrote back and said, “Send me the full manuscript,” which you did.  If you were really lucky, the editor called you to say, “I want to buy your book.”  You thanked the editor profusely, hung up the phone, and hunted madly for an agent.
Things have changed.

Before we go any further, I’m assuming you’ve finished your first novel.  You’ve done the first draft, second draft, more rewrites, and a final polish, and your book is ready to go.  This is a requirement before you can send anything out because it’s pretty much a given that no editor will offer a contract to a first-timer who doesn’t have a full manuscript yet, and no agent will offer to represent one, either.  There’s a simple reason for this–no matter how strong your initial proposal may be, the editor or agent has no way of knowing if you have the staying power to finish the whole thing.  A lot of new authors–in fact, the vast majority of them–never complete a book.  (This means that actually finishing a novel puts you ahead of ninety percent of everyone else, so once you finish, you’re allowed a few moments of self-congratulation.)

Once your book is the best you can make it, you’re not going to submit it quite yet.  First, you need to put together a short treatment.

How to Treat a Treatment

Computers and the Internet have largely destroyed the 20-page synopsis.  Word processing made the physical act of writing much easier, and people who wouldn’t have the patience for it before are now producing 100,000 words.  And they all want to send them out.  Editors and agents are inundated with more submissions than ever.  Couple that with massive layoffs in publishing that require everyone in the business to do the work of three people, and your average editor has much less time for reading.  Treatments have become much more common as a result.

A treatment consists of three to five double-spaced pages.  It sketches out in broad terms what happens in your book.  Think of it as an expanded version of the back cover blurb.  You don’t have much room, so you need to hit the ground running.  It might begin:

Life is conspiring against Henry Bayfield.  His ex-wife has filed for sole custody of their daughter, he was recently bitten by a werewolf, and the guy in front of him at the bank has just pulled a gun.  As the customers dive for cover, Henry fingers the gun in his own pocket and wonders why be bothered to get up this morning.

You’ll notice the total lack of explanation about who Henry Bayfield is. It’s death to start with something like Henry Bayfield is a new werewolf with a nasty ex-wife.  Instead, a treatment focuses on what the character does, as in the above example.
As the treatment progresses, you’ll have to condense greatly:

…Henry barely escapes the bank, but now the SPCA is hounding him.  Some time later, he meets Farrah Finn, an old high school flame who seems ready to re-ignite.  They hide out together in a series of bad motels while dodging the SPCA and the hitmen sent by Henry’s ex-wife, and their relationship deepens…

The ending can be done in broad terms as well:

…In the end, as the hit men close in, Henry is forced to choose between Farrah, his daughter, and his new feelings of self worth.

In three to five pages, you don’t have much room to explain symbolism, theme, or character development.  That’s the way it goes.  Focus on the main plot points and count on the sample pages to draw the editor in.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–The Treatment of Treatments — 2 Comments

  1. Interesting. I had never heard of a treatment until I started writing screenplays, and thought it was a film term, not publishing.