Writing a treatment for your novel

A treatment, as defined by Wikipedia, is:

A film treatment is a piece of prose, typically the step between scene cards and the first draft of a screenplay for a motion picture, television program, or radio play. It is generally longer and more detailed than an outline, and it may include details of directorial style that an outline omits. Wikipedia

I’ve found that writing a treatment for a novel is equally useful.  The note-making process for a novel can be a bit scatty – or it is, if you’re me.  By the time I’d finished the first novel in my new fantasy series, I was already making notes for the next novel (and the next, and the next……)  Then, while I was off doing something else for a year, I would add a few more notes as they came to mind.  When I finally sat down to start the pre-writing process, I had LOADS more notes with lots of ideas cropping up in odd places, such as plot development ideas occurring while working on character biographies.

While the story was very clear in my mind, the actual course of events needed to be sorted out, as did the balancing of dramatic and reflective moments.  I’ve also constructed very tight writing rules for this series of novels:  no more than 80 000 words, a relatively fixed number of chapters, very clear plot developments.  In order for all this to work, I needed a VERY well-constructed treatment.

When I sit down – finally – to write a treatment, I already know my story very well indeed.  By the time I’ve finished the treatment, I know it inside out.  I go through my notes again and again, finding bits that are hugely interesting that I want to include and then add it to the treatment.  What you have at the end is a well-structured short story BUT not at all written in “story” form:  this is not the place where real writing is done – this is where thoughts are ordered.  Think of as creating a skeleton on which to hang your first draft.

The completed treatment for the second novel in the series is almost 10 000 words long and comes to 20 pages.  I set it up as a table with a narrow column running down the right hand side.  In this column, I have chapter titles and structure notes such as Act I Climax, Intro to Character, Flashback, first vital clue, that sort of thing.  I also have dates, indications if I think a chapter might be longer than usual, which means I know following chapters need to be shorter.  Sometimes there are notes indicating whether a chapter needs to be slower due to extreme action in the previous chapter.  I have chapter titles in red.  I have a row of little flowers to separate chapters.  If there is too much information written elsewhere, I will make a note of exactly where that info is if I need to refer to it.

By working on the treatment, it usually means the notes in the right hand column have to be moved constantly.  This can be a tad tiresome but in the end, it all works for me.  I print it out when it’s done and then basically all my notes are in one place, nice and neat and easy to read.

None of these notes, however, are written in stone.  With the first novel, there were many name changes.  I made an error with a date and had to change it which resulted in a chapter title changing too.  An extremely minor character became more interesting and I foresaw an unexpected romance in the distant future.  There were visual changes too.

But because of the treatment, I was able to sit down and write a first draft without stopping, without, as it were, hesitation, repetition or deviation.  It was brilliant!  It was a breath of fresh air!  I felt FREE because I had rules, weird as that may sound!

So if you are a scatty, rambling writer as I have been, there is a way to learn some control.  Writing a treatment-plus-structure has been my saving grace.  It’s also GREAT fun, as you can see your novel taking shape which can be very encouraging.

Obviously you can set it up however you like.  Mine looks something like this:

(Please note this is a sample only – my first chapter went on for a page and a half, the second for two pages;  another chapter further on was about five pages long!)

Sample of full treatment plus structure


About susannahjbell

I am a writer of science fiction and other strange and surreal works. I mostly write novels and the occasional novelette. My published works include A Doorway into Ultra, the Fleet Quintet and the Exodus Sequence. I live in London in an attic flat but really want to live in a tree. I wanted to be an astrophysicist but would settle for an alien abduction. I write because I don’t know what to read.
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