Last weekend the NZ Writers Guild invited me up to Auckland to help teach a seminar on writing 5-page treatments.  The NZ Film Commission is awash with far too many applicants for the size of their development team, so instead of reading full screenplays for initial funding decisions, they want to see 5-page treatments first so they can quickly wade through the stories that don’t work on a big-picture level.

The trouble is, treatments are almost never effective. If you focus on plot, the reader will think the characters are thin. If you focus on character, the reader will think the plot is weak. If you focus on theme, the reader will think you’re a navel-gazing arty farty type. It’s a lose/lose/lose situation.

But with that understood, there are ways to write 5-pagers that are more likely to be effective than someone else’s 5-pager. So that’s what we talked about this weekend (and will talk about again next weekend in Dunedin and two weekends after that in Wellington).

Steven Gannaway, the Exec Director of the Writers Guild, opened with an hour about answering the most common question he gets every week – “I’ve finished a screenplay. Now what do I do?” He prepared a checklist that covers a multi-step process, a few of which involve alcohol. I wish I had received a copy of that checklist far earlier in my career.

"I shouldn't be more invested in your career than you are."

Then I got two hours to talk about treatments in big-picture terms – how they’re structured, why they exist in the first place, and most importantly … why most writers misunderstand what they’re supposed to accomplish. A sales treatment (as opposed to a working document) isn’t really about whether a story works or not; it’s actually about whether the writer is worth supporting. The text of the treatment is about the writing, but the far more important subtext is about the writer. Is she smart? Confident? Professional? Does she have good taste? Can she evoke emotions? Can she make me expect one thing and then deliver something surprising and cooler than what I expected?

I used four sample treatments – three written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and included  with a good article on treatments by Terry at his website Wordplay, and a a 5-pager for MR & MRS SMITH written by Simon Kinberg. I don’t recall where I got the Kinberg treatment, but it’s like the Platonic Ideal of a 5-pager for a character-based action movie.

Then, lunch. Mmmmm… lunch…

Then it was Kathryn Burnett’s turn. Where I had been talking about the forest, Kathryn talked about the trees. How to write active sentences, how to use the power of language to your advantage, how to engage the reader and force him to keep reading even though he is tired and hungry and has already read 42 other treatments that day.

"Why is 'A languid, honey-skinned brunette slides onto the barstool at his side' better than 'A pretty, slightly tanned brunette sits next to him'?"

Then we did about an hour of Q&A with all three of us. Everyone seemed to get something out of the day, and I got to see a few friends I hadn’t seen for a while.

And then our reward:

Yes, there are people in New Zealand who know how to make good cocktails. It's just that none of them are in Palmerston North.