We all know what a displacement activity is. It's what animals do when they're trying to avoid a fight. It's something you do when you know you should be doing something else.
You've got a tax return to fill in, so what do you do? Wash the car, or finish that bit of grouting. Displacement activities.
Writing a treatment is a classic displacement activity. Obviously so - because what you should be writing is a script.
For the uninitiated - a treatment is between 30 and 60 pages long (actually, that's REALLY useless information). It's a kind of sales pitch for a script. So: one-page synopsis, detailed story outline, character breakdowns, any additional information. There is no actual definition of a treatment, but it's basically a detailed description of the script you're hoping to write, compiled in such a way as to allow the reader to know precisely what kind of script you're going to write.
Now. I guess when Christopher Columbus knelt before Ferdinand and Isabella to ask them for money, he was expected to give them a detailed description of the trip he intended to make. He gave them a 'treatment' - a map, if you like, of a journey he'd never made. And then he proved how spot on he'd been by discovering somewhere else altogether.
That's one of the main problem with treatments. Not only are you describing something you haven't done yet but you're running a very real risk that your journey ('script'), when you take it, will turn out to be totally unlike your treatment. So what was the point of the treatment?
Let's be clear. There are some things that a treatment is good for. It's not a bad idea to clarify what you're planning on doing, and making sure that your backers, producers, clients, whatever, are broadly in sympathy with your intentions.
But a scriptwriter or a screenwriter really only has one purpose in life, and that's to write scripts or screenplays. Anything else - like churning out treatments - is a distraction, a displacement activity.
Treatments were not actually a very big deal when I started out in British television. Way back then, producers really only wanted to see scripts. Which was fine, because I really only wanted to write scripts.
But little by little, the treatment became king. I remember sitting in a meeting, discussing some project or other. The Head of Drama said, 'Right, well I think we need a script.' I feel good and start mentally counting my fee. The Head of Drama Development (glorified script editor) said, 'No, I think we need a treatment.' I feel bad, and then worse when the Head of Drama caves in.
The result: there never was a script. I got paid about a tenth of my fee and had NO FUN AT ALL.
Because here's the rub. NO ONE has EVER gained ANY satisfaction from reading a treatment. That's partly because they're unreadable. I mean, what are they? They're not scripts, they're not novels. They are, essentially, a waste of time.
So why are these things everywhere, these days? Why must every writer (more or less) devote a considerable amount of their time, energy, attention and expertise on creating, revising and polishing treatments?
At treatment stage, a producer still feels he or she has some control over the project. The worst producers just don't 'get' scripts. I think they're jealous of us gifted, creative children. They're scared of our abilities. And they're terrified by our independent spirits. So they try to delay the moment when the writer goes off to do what he or she does best (write a script), because the moment they do so the more inadequate kind of producer instantly suffers a LOSS OF CONTROL.
Let's look at the rest of the production. Does the director have to make a kind of 'home video' version of the show first, to prove that he can do it properly? Does the actor have to present a report on how he or she is expecting to play the part? Does the editor compile a 30 - 60 page report on how the piece ought to cut together?
No. But writers, the most marginalised workers in the industry, are expected, these days at least, to do something well outside of their comfort zone (just as treatments are no fun to read, they're no fun to write) which will have minimum benefit for the script and might, in fact, ruin the script before it's even started.
Producers will argue that treatments allow us to anticipate any problems with the script and solve them before the script is written.
Nonsense. You can only ever tell if a script is going to work by reading the script. The treatment is meaningless. If the script needs to change (and often if it doesn't) it will change. The treatment is meaningless.
Worse - the writer needs to tackle the script with a degree of freshness, wonder, adventure. But all too often, every last shred of excitement has been squeezed out of the project during the treatment stage. So the treatment - a worthless document that nobody likes reading - has killed off the infinitely more important document - the script - before you've even started!!!
For now, more's the pity, treatments can't be ignored. Producers cling to them. They're a displacement activity - not for writers but for producers who dread letting writers do what they're good at.
But never make the mistake of imagining that a treatment has any real relevance. Only the script has relevance. The treatment is a straitjacket which a producer tries to force a writer into. The public will never read it, most executives will never read it, and none of the great writers of the past ever had to worry about them.
Treatments are a symptom of what's wrong with the industry these days - of how badly writers are treated. 'Let them write scripts', is what we ought to be hearing. Instead, we hear 'Let them write treatments.' Which is tantamount to 'For God's sake, never let a writer write anything! Don't let them do scripts! Keep them distracted, farting about with something pointless! Whatever happens, AVOID LETTING THE WRITER WRITE A SCRIPT!'
To those producers, I say: 'You do your job and let the writers do theirs.' And to the writers, I say: 'The script matters. The treatment doesn't.'