How to Write a Documentary Treatment

Make Your Concept Sing.

After you have written your logline, you will want to write a treatment.

A treatment is usually 2-10 pages double-spaced and states how the audience will experience the film. It’s important to write treatments in an active voice, and avoid the use of hyperbole (such as “this unique film will explore”, etc).

When writing treatments, you want your audience to be able to visualize your film. You want to write in present tense and provide an overview of the characters, locations, and details of the film. You can write your treatment creatively. The purpose of a treatment is to allow your audience to smell, taste, and experience your environment. Reading a treatment – second only to reading a full script – is the closest written equivalent to the look of your film.

That said, it’s important to leave out technical information. In a script you may include camera information (angles, movement, etc,), but in a treatment, you’ll want to keep it limited to non-technical information.

Similarly, you won’t want your treatment to have an editorial tone. Rather than saying things like –

“This documentary will dive into the subject of gender relations in the hip hop community. The documentary will look at the relationship between two nemeses; Mr. Bugz and Mrs DJ Spinna.”

– Say:

“Mr. Bugz B and Mrs DJ Spinna stand toe-to-toe in front of their microphones. Mr. Bugz rhymes a misogynistic rhyme, stating, “We don’t want no ugly girls in here tonight”, which Mrs. DJ Spinna answers with a rhyme mocking Mr. Bugz’ unusually large ears. The crowd goes wild. Mr. Bugz continues, but with less steam. The insult has touched a vulnerable part of his identity.”

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Again, it’s important to stress that you need to avoid editorial writing when writing treatments and instead speak in an active and present voice. Similarly, you should avoid using words and phrases like:

“Next we see” – Don’t start sentences with “we see”. Tell the audience what they see without introducing your sentence with “we see”.

Try to avoid passive words such as “should”, “will”, “might”, and “maybe”.

Passive words evoke less emotion and take the audience out of the story. Feel free to use dialogue snippets, descriptions of the environment, and characters. Essentially, use any non-technical element that helps you paint as colorful of a picture as possible.

The Nature of the Beast

This all being said, documentary treatments are inherently difficult to write. Because of the nature of documentaries where most of the action is unknown until the end of filming, it’s challenging to come up with a treatment for a documentary before it’s filmed. For this reason, you might not be able to write a treatment until the end of the production process. However, there are two good reasons to attempt a treatment before you start filming.

First, a treatment helps investors visualize your idea in a personal manner. Treatments don’t have a “business feel” to them. They sound dramatic, personal, and honest.

Secondly, they help you figure out what your expectations are for your documentary, and they provide the beginnings of a roadmap you can later follow. Of course your documentary will change as you start filming, but writing a treatment will make you aware of your own expectations and ideas.

A treatment could be written as if you have already finished your documentary and now you’re looking back and giving a description of what happened. If you do this, your expectations and story ideas will be written and therefore visualized. This is a great place from which to launch your documentary project, and it will help you better understand the three dimensional shape of your intended film.


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4 comments

  • JULIA November 10, 2011  

    I found your article helpful and clear. I have encouraged students to write ‘we see’ because it’s just one step closer to the present and getting them to show and not tell, but I like your suggestion that we just jump straight in there. I agree that the treatment before filming will help give a clearer picture of what may lie ahead, sometimes it may serve as the knowing of what we don’t need to make the documentary a begining to a process.

  • Patricia January 13, 2012  

    LOVE this blog!! Very helpful and informative and fits in exactly with what I need for information regarding my endeavor to write and film my own documentary!!

    Thanks!

    SD

  • SSEWANKAMBO DENIS June 4, 2012  

    THANKS FOR THE KNOWLEDGE YOU GIVE US

  • Alick Nyankata June 21, 2012  

    Very educating please keep it up

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