The title is a film’s greatest possible essence and abstraction. It provides the first information about a story and consequently causes first associations. A good title offers dramatic qualities. It may relate to the contradiction of a theme (e.g. ‘Fight Club’, 1999 or ‘Biutiful’, 2010). Sometimes a title can point out this contradiction through the use of an oxymoron (e.g. “Back to the Future”, 1985) or a word play. By harbouring a secret or causing an irritation a title may pique curiosity or appear ambivalent or ironic. This contradiction is often stated in a pars pro toto manner by picking up a motif or an expression of the film.
The name of the protagonist or dominant character or the central character relationship is often part of the title. Likewise the premise or conflict of the film maybe used as a title. By containing the setting or time period a title can also suggest a genre or story material. The use of a working title (WT) signals that the responsible team reserves the right to rename the film after its completion.
The tagline presents an addition to the title – e.g. on a poster or DVD. It shouldn’t be longer than eight words and foreshadow the film’s theme. A tagline may also be a quote from the film.
A logline summarises the story in a few words without giving away the end. A logline entails the main character and her main conflict. Examples for loglines are: “A man searches for his family”, “A nun runs amok”, “A teacher fights for her reputation”.
When talking about the essence of a story, one means the premise. Indeed, the premise challenges the writer to condense the story’s arc into a single sentence. Starting with the main character and the central antagonism/conflict, the premise also contains the inciting incident or the first plot point as well as the main character’s want. Moreover, an essential part of the premise is to hint also at the main character’s need resp. the theme of the story and to indicate the end. This leads to a (narrative) attitude that helps the writer to understand what the story is about and why it has to end like that. In this way, the premise serves the writer as a tool to focus the plot on the essentials and to question every scene in this sense. The term ‘premise’ was coined by Lajos Egri in his book ‘Dramatic Writing’ (1946).
The central question is raised by the first plot point and spans the entire second act until it is answered by the second plot point. Thus, the central question shapes the film.
Draft of ideas
This draft is usually the first written sketch of a story. It helps writers to note down their preliminary vision for themselves and their closest team members. It doesn’t have to follow any formal standards.
Abstract / Synopsis
An abstract or synopsis (one page length) harbours the narrative essence of a story in the most concise style while outlining the story material, the central characters, the premise, the conflict as well as the want. Its tone is neutral and down-to-earth. It should suggest the end, but doesn’t have to reveal the entire resolution.
The outline is the first concept text of a film story. It focuses on the central aspect of each scene. Why is this scene necessary? What is it trying to tell? The outline narrows down the essence of the story. When a character occurs for the first time, her or his name is written in all upper case followed by the age in parentheses.
The presentation treatment constitutes a film’s sales text and is usually three to fifteen pages in length. It attempts to communicate the potential of the film’s plot as well as to attract the reader’s attention. Its key focus is the main storyline and the (emotional) development of the main character(s) as well as the resolution of the film. The challenge of the presentation treatment is its required briefness.
Characters should be characterized in a few words and yet not be reduced to their mere function for the plot. The character descriptions should not overtake the opening of the text but should be interspersed into the text when the character appears for the first time or when their action/reaction becomes relevant for the plot. Only the main characters should be named, while the secondary characters should only be described in their role or relationship to the main character, e.g. “their father” or “the priestess”. Too many names make it difficult for the reader to follow the plot. The high art of character description is to make the character come alive in the imagination of the reader by using few but precise words. Showing the character in action is one of the most useful ways to do this as characterization happens casually without any additional text: simply the choice of active verb offers a concise character description.
Another challenge is posed by having to establish a narrative tone. In a presentation treatment this may be done by using a specific style of language. Comedies make it particularly difficult to transmit a comical tonality – especially comedies that carry their comic element through their dialogues as these are not part of a presentation treatment (with the exception of few concise, central or typical dialogue sentences to loosen up the text). Unlike an outline or script a presentation treatment has a narrative character. Unless the story has been fully developed it only offers a ‘proposition’ and/or promise.
For an episodic film one should show the various storylines consecutively even when they’re told in montage style in the film. This makes sure to keep the continuity of each storyline.
Original Draft Treatment
An original draft treatment has a length of 30-60 pages. At this point it becomes possible to estimate the running time of the film as well as its narrative rhythm. All main and secondary storylines are fully developed as well as all central and secondary characters. When a character occurs for the first time in the treatment, her or his name is written in all upper case followed by the age in parentheses.
While a narrative gap or an implausible plot element could be easily skipped and therewith hidden in a synopsis, a treatment makes this almost impossible. As all scenes are only described but not written out some weaknesses could still be concealed. Main and content-related key dialogue sentences are condensed into indirect speech while detailed scene descriptions and the full dialogue is only fully developed in a script.
A scriptment is a transitional stage between treatment and script, a hybrid between the two. It offers the possibility to juxtapose fully and partially developed scenes or it allows integrating passages of written dialogue into scene descriptions.
Frey, James N.: How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-By-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling. 1987.
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