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Outline, Synopsis, or Treatment: Do You Know The Difference?

June 8, 2015

Let’s tackle the definition of an outline first. What is an outline? An outline is normally the first thing I write. When I have a story idea in my head, I’ll take pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write down the key plot points in my story. I don’t normally have the entire story worked out in my head yet, but I do have an idea of story arc and character arc. This is what I focus on when writing an outline.

The outline is an attempt to keep me on track with the story I want to write. If you’re a seasoned writer you are well aware that once you begin writing a story your characters will often decide to take you in a different direction then you initially intended. Sometimes the story you thought you were going to write turns out to be something different altogether. Sure, there’ll be some resemblances to your original outline. The theme and original plot may stay intact, but often times (at least for me) the characters will take you on a few detours and get you to the heart of what you really wanted to write.

In television the outline is usually referred to as a “beat sheet.” A beat sheet is the breakdown of each scene into its major beats. A beat is a significant moment in a scene. I try to make sure that each scene has at least three beats. There may be other moments that happen in this scene, but those significant moments are what you want to focus on when writing your beat sheet.

What is a synopsis? A synopsis is a one paragraph to one page description of the overall premise of your film or show. Think of it as an extended logline. It’s what is used to describe your film/show on a one-sheet (a one-sheet is what you leave behind after a pitch). Within the one-sheet will be one solid paragraph that fully captures the core idea of your script. Often times, those that are not as familiar with the term, will confuse a synopsis with a treatment.

What’s a treatment? A treatment can be anywhere from two or three pages to 30 or more pages. It’s basically a short story version of your script. It’s written in present tense and in active voice just as you would write a script. It’s a much more detailed version of an outline. Sometimes an outline will consist of just bullet points and brief explanations of those bullet points. The treatment is written out in story format. It’s very rare that you’ll have a producer ask you for a treatment. If you do, make sure that it’s written superbly. It’s extremely unusual for a script to be purchased off of a treatment. If you can’t sell them on the pitch it’s highly unlikely that you’ll sell them with the treatment.

So an outline is basically notes for the writer; a tool used to keep your on course to tell your story. Often written with bullet points, but can be written with more detail. I treatment is very similar, but with much more detail and written more as a short story. A synopsis is an extension of the logline. It covers the basic premise of your script in a paragraph up to one page. The outline should never be seen by anyone other than the writer. The first treatment (the extended outline) should never be seen by anyone other the writer. If a producer asks you for one, write a new one specifically for him/her and make it your best work. The synopsis is often used in the one-sheet and will be seen by you, the producers, and sometimes (not often) by the public. And there you have it. I hope that clears some things up for you. Until next week, happy writing.

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