How to Write a Treatment: Blending Text and Subtext

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Story" by Robert McKee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the purpose of a treatment? What’s the best way to write one?

McKee details what he believes to be the ideal writing process: Begin with an outline, flesh it out into a treatment, then polish it into a final script. McKee frames this as a process for screenwriters, but you could apply it to stories in any medium.

Keep reading to explore the second step in McKee’s process and learn his advice for how to write a treatment.

How to Write a Treatment

McKee’s second step in writing a story is to turn your outline into a treatment, and he explains how to write a treatment. It’s a more detailed description of each scene that takes care to outline both text and subtext. That is, you not only write in extreme detail what happens in each scene but also what each character is thinking and feeling—what’s truly motivating them.

If you’re creating a story that’s true to life, this internal subtext will often contradict what the characters superficially appear to be doing. To return to our example from Finding Nemo, when Marlin shouts at Nemo, “You’re going to get stuck out there!” (text), he’s expressing, “I hope I can control Nemo by acting angry. I’m only doing this because I’m terrified something will happen to him” (subtext).

Because of this difference between text and subtext, you must write down both textual layers to ensure you fully understand what’s happening in your story in every scene. According to McKee, this is the purpose of a treatment.

(Shortform note: McKee recommends outlining your subtext as a diagnostic tool to ensure that everything in your scene is true to life. However, you can also intentionally inject subtext into a scene to make it more compelling, just by having your characters avoid saying what they really mean. Subtext makes a scene more compelling in two ways. First, it withholds information from the reader, generating curiosity. When the audience isn’t quite sure what your characters are really saying, it motivates them to look more deeply into your story. Second, subtext organically creates conflict. When characters avoid saying what they’re really feeling, it makes communication more difficult, which can escalate the tension in interpersonal relationships.)

How to Write a Treatment: Blending Text and Subtext

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert McKee's "Story" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Story summary:

  • A guide for screenwriters on how to write a gripping story
  • How to engage an audience on an emotional and intellectual level
  • The three-step process for how to write a story

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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