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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, July 26, 2007

a story treatment for novels?

Yesterday I spent more time working at making explicit the ideas in chapter 30 of my work. As I mentioned two days ago, I see this as the basic activity of writing: turning implicit or latent knowledge and experience into explicit, named concepts: words.

In my case, this means a lot of writing before I get to my "writing"--actually drafting the chapter. My hope is that all this prewriting forms a rich compost from which the garden of the eventual prose can grow.

Robert McKee, in his screenwriting textbook Story, teaches an approach to writing in which you start with a step-outline, which is the bare outline of the plot. I used to do this on index cards; now I try to achieve it on the PC (the index cards may still be the better method). McKee's description:

If, hypothetically and optimistically, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last draft in six months, these writers typically spend the first four of those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for each act--three, four, perhaps more.

There: four out of six months of writing time should be devoted to the step-outline, fully two-thirds of the storytelling effort. In my opinion, it should probably be the same in fiction-writing. One difficulty is that a novel, which is longer than a screenplay, requires a correspondingly longer period on the step-outline phase, and it is a test of the writer's commitment and nerve to see whether he or she can sit facing only a stack of index cards for a year or so. I did with this book--longer than a year, more like two--and I still think I moved on hastily, afraid of spending any more time outlining. But you pay later for any haste at this stage: first of all in a more difficult writing task, and finally in a weaker end-product--a stiff penalty for wanting to force the pace.

The next phase in McKee's method is to draft the story treatment: a prose version of the step-outline in which each scene is described. The term treatment is used in filmmaking to describe a variety of documents that range from a story synopsis to a narrative 30 or 40 pages long. As far as I know, they're not often written anymore except as a sales document to help pitch a movie idea. They're not used as writing tools by the writers themselves.

But McKee sees a story treatment as a key step in the writing process, whether or not the treatment is ever seen by anyone but the writer. At the treatment stage the writer works out logistical and motivational problems with the story. You discover things that don't work the way you'd thought. More particularly, I've found that in expanding on a terse line for a scene there are often difficult problems that I was more or less avoiding, semiconsciously.

One of the most important purposes of the treatment is to work out the subtext of each scene: what each character's true feelings and motives are. These are made explicit in the treatment. And, very importantly, the treatment contains no dialogue. It's tempting for any writer, but especially a screenwriter, to move on to the fun part of writing dialogue, but until the scene-work is complete you do not know your characters or their motives well enough to write dialogue. Only when the treatment has been fully worked out is the writer in a position to write a draft of the screenplay.

What I'm wondering is whether there's a place for story treatments in fiction-writing. I'm not sure, because a novel is not so deliberately spare and dialogue-intensive as a screenplay. And yet the imortant points still apply: knowing your characters and the subtext of each scene. A treatment for a novel would be a strange document, and long. It would be a "talking about" the story, again with no dialogue, and with some provision for filling in the sections of "telling", in which the writer talks about things instead of showing them directly with action. It would make, in effect, a particularly weird first draft.

But it may very well be worth it: a kind of technical first draft, not unlike a technical dress rehearsal for a stage production, in which the technical aspects of the show are worked out and finalized. Since any decent work of writing goes through multiple drafts anyway, it might be just the thing.

Maybe I'll try drafting a sample piece of treatment for an exising novel, to see what this would look like.

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  • so this is six years later but here goes: I do think the treatment could be a good step for a novel. I think some publishers want this anyway. Ken Follett writes a 40 page outline for each novel which reads like a treatment.

    By Blogger Ryan Baker, at March 07, 2013 8:53 AM  

  • Hi Ryan. Thanks for commenting (I received notification late due to delayed mail at my ISP server--Mercury is retrograde).

    I do think a proper story treatment is, in principle, a great idea. The tough part is having the patience and discipline to complete it. I have no doubt that the final result would be much better than without it.

    By Blogger paulv, at March 09, 2013 5:32 PM  

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