How to write a treatment for a TV show

Get your story noticed and sell your idea with a compelling treatment

If you want to create a TV show independently then the first thing you need is a strong treatment to underpin the idea that you’re pitching.

Writing a strong treatment can not only aid your creative process by getting your thoughts in order but it's something that you can return to time and again in order to keep your script or format on track.

While your idea may slightly evolve over time, your treatment is the key supporting document that will sell your idea to be developed by a channel or production company. Competition is fierce in the industry so it’s vital to make your story stand out from the crowd.

Make your treatment as bulletproof as possible by following these steps:

Include only the vital details

A TV show treatment should be between 4-8 pages long if episodes are around the 20 to 30-minute mark. The trick is to make it as thorough as possible but try to avoid getting too bogged down in the fine details as these will come later. There is no need to include pictures as your words alone will sell it.

Find a compelling but original title

One of the most difficult decisions comes right at the beginning when you need to think up a dynamic title to match your concept! It's essential to at least have a working title that is as good as you can make it as nobody wants to pick up an unnamed project. Check IMDB to ensure that there isn’t already a show out there with the same name.

Soon enough your treatment could be treated (geddit?) to the joy of being filmed. Bliss!

Who is it for?

At the beginning of your treatment, set out the length, tone, number of episodes, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, genre, format, general tone and the audience that it’s aimed at.

If you are developing a non-fiction show then it’s important to include the format points, type of presenter or talent as well as whether it will be filmed in a studio, on location or both. Make a note about whether it will have VT inserts or backstage moments as well as the main show.

Draw them in with a quick summary

Make sure that your summary (sometimes known as a logline), includes 3-6 sentences to briefly describe your idea and get people onboard.

Explain what it is about

It is vital to include the who, what and why of your story. Who will it be about, where will they be, what will they do and why are they doing it?

Your sense of place should have a reason behind it so think about how the location underpins the show. Don’t forget to include the overall message and subtext of your theme as these are also important narrative drivers for your story.

Bring in your characters or contributors and introduce their journeys

For a non-fiction treatment, include the types of contestants or contributors that you would cast as well as the kind of presenter or narrator that would guide the format.

For fiction, a short list of your main character’s names and traits as well as who you would ideally love to cast is a good place to start. If you are planning to cast unknown talent or host open auditions then include that.

The character’s motivation is key to telling a good story as it demonstrates the origin of any conflicts. These reasons can also determine the obstacles that the cast will face as the story unfolds. A bonus is that these drivers show the direction of the story and help solidify your programme idea.

As an exercise, you could try writing a couple of lines of dialogue to help get a feel for those people. Some things to mention are the factors that inform or say a lot about the character’s personality, for example, catchphrases, family background, religion, class and even political beliefs.

Each of your main characters will tread their own path, so briefly include their story arc. As an example, does their journey include romance, self-discovery, healing or justice?

Extra tip: if you're writing a treatment (or a script, like in this pic), make sure it's in a language that can be understood by those you're submitting to (what I'm saying is German might not work in the UK). A valuable freebie, right there.

Introduce your storylines in the pilot

Your pilot or introduction episode needs to be a little more fleshed out than your other summaries. For your first episode consider what the threads of it will be, the inciting incident and how this feeds into where the narrative will go.

What is your main ‘A’ thread and if you have one, what is the ‘B’ storyline that runs alongside that? There might even be a smaller ‘C’ storyline that you may want to include, especially if it’s a comedy or drama.

Show the direction of your storylines and tease the climax

Briefly break down how your stories will play out over the rest of the episodes, including the climax or resolution of the series. Be sure to include all of your strands and characters because if you drop one accidentally then it possibly shouldn’t be there in the first place. If the series ends on a cliffhanger, you can add in a line about what another series will focus on to show that you’ve thought about it.

Check it all makes sense

Once you’ve honed your final draft, check that you’re selling it well and search for discrepancies! If you have a friend, partner or TV professional that you can trust, ask them to read it over. If they have any questions then there is something that you’ve missed and you need to revisit that part of your treatment.

Ask yourself if you feel confident in your work

The benefit of putting all of this work into your treatment is that it can help to develop the show in your mind. This is a great position to be in when you go into a pitch or development meeting. It should also help your confidence to be able to answer questions when faced with potential cast and crew members, executive producers or financial backers.

Always remember that rejection and revisiting treatments are both part of the creative process. The main thing is that you believe in your idea and the importance of the story that only you can tell.

Jennifer Sizeland
Jennifer Sizeland is a freelance writer and assistant producer with 12 years of experience in the media industry. She has written for many publications as well as her own sustainability blog called Land of Size.

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