Outlines, Treatments, & Pitches

We spend so much time working to perfect our stories, we often neglect a great little tool: The Outline.

With its partners, treatments and pitches, the outline is not only a compact way to communicate your premise but also a great way to rein in the sprawl of your thinking and focus on the key elements in your and your writing partners’ stories.

Don’t panic. Outlines, as a pre-writing tool, are not for everyone, it’s true. But when you’ve finished a draft and are reasonably confident about the content of your screenplay, novel, memoir, or other long-format work, creating an after-the-fact outline can confirm your hunches and get you on the road to completing the project just a bit faster.

So what goes into these mini versions of your work? Definitions vary across industries but here are some general guidelines:

OUTLINES

  • Cover, at minimum, the key structural points of your story: main characters, their arcs, and major reversals.
  • Clearly convey the bare bones of the plot upon which your character development is based.
  • Convey the tone and style of your story through voice.
  • Can be as small as one paragraph (your logline) or several pages long–most often, outlines run one page or less in length.

TREATMENTS

  • Cover all of the above in additional detail and offer a larger view of the story than afforded in an outline. For example, secondary characters may be included along with their related plots.
  • Allow the reader to more fully grasp the world, the conflicts, and the nuances of your story verses those that are similar through their sequence-by-sequence breakdown.
  • Often include snippets of dialogue or sample scenes.
  • Can be one to twenty+ pages in length, depending upon use, but should still remain brief and succinct on a item-by-item basis.

PITCHES

  • Pitches are the verbal version of the above.
  • It’s helpful to have a one-paragraph version available to you as well as a fuller narrative in order to avoid rambling or following minor story threads when speaking.
  • Should include, at minimum, the protagonist, their primary problem, and the major conflict they face.
  • Depending upon the audience, full arcs and conflict resolution may be left open-ended (for effect, not because they are unknown).

Developing outlines, treatments, and pitches are perfect uses of story consultants as they can provide the perspective and distance needed to get to the heart of the matter more quickly and succinctly.

Share know how you, dear readers, create your outlines, treatments, and pitches. Post your comment below and offer your experience.


UPDATED September 4, 2008: 9:27am: It’s in the ether. Check out a related post “Should I Get Credit for the Outline?” by screenwriter John August over at his site, JohnAugust.com.



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  1. Hi Diane. I’ve got to write a treatment for a development scheme – due next Friday. Thanks for the tips.

    Fiona says:

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