The best short films are more than just a snapshot of a moment in time. They are a window into worlds that don’t often get their due in the rush of today’s entertainment landscape. The best way to write a short film is to seek out the messages that need to be told, and tell them in the best way possible. Though it may seem like a daunting task, these tips below will help you learn how to write a short film.
- 1 Pick a subject
- 2 Leverage the Spotlight Effect
- 3 Create a cast of characters
- 4 Create character profiles
- 5 Get to know your location
- 6 Write the treatment/mini-outline
- 7 Make a storyboard
- 8 Understand pacing
- 9 Create your beats
- 10 Chop down to the essence
- 11 Write a script with a beginning, middle and end
- 12 Stay in the moment
- 13 Connect with your audience
- 14 Write your short film
- 15 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Pick a subject
Before you begin to write your film, you’ll need to do the research. This is where your chosen subject matter will start taking shape as you’re inspired to create a character based on real life experiences, and setting your story in a place you’re familiar with. The exact direction your writing takes will have a profound impact on the kind of film you end up making, for better or for worse. To make the best use of your time, explore films that have been made using a similar topic and perspective. Watch documentaries and read scholarly articles and eye-witness accounts on your subject.
Humans are self-centered creatures who will naturally make most films about themselves. When you know little about the subject of your story, take the perspective of a particular audience member. Who do you think will care most about this story? Build your story around the most heroic character you can think of who’s also representative of the people who might want to view it — you’ll save yourself from writing an awkward screenplay that nobody ends up caring about.
Leverage the Spotlight Effect
The Spotlight Effect is the idea that when we see someone we consider up, we also lose sight of something else. Not coincidentally, the brain is wired in a way to focus on things which, according to evolutionary psychology, enhanced your chances of survival as a caveman. The best short films reflect the creator’s needs and desires, regardless of how lofty they are. The Spotlight Effect often comes into play because audiences ease into a film and start to relate to it emotionally. Be aware of this phenomenon—but don’t be reactionary.
Filmmakers often traverse a fine line between making the community they represent feel proud of their culture, and feeding into harmful stereotypes and simultaneously shut out others. The best way to do both of these things is to create characters that positively represent the community, acknowledging that people are more than their labels. The audience should root for the protagonist, and, if it is well-written, they should be somebody who everybody can relate to on some level, even if they are wealthy, marginalized, or mentally challenged. Show the audience sides of their community that you want to see more of in films. Then, tell a compelling story.
Create a cast of characters
A short film is certainly its own work, and needs a cast of characters to match. The trick when writing a screenplay — and writing a short film is an instance of that — is to write nuanced and dynamic characters who aren’t simply pawns in the author’s story, but agency-wielding actors who influence the plot for good or ill. So don’t just name your character ‘The Cop’ or ‘The Blonde’ — give them personality, likes and dislikes, quirks, and elaborations, all of which will make them more believable and easier to give lines, which is the lifeblood of any screenplay, long or short.
Next, figure out your character’s motivation. Do they think they know a lot about how one becomes a mad scientist, but are still perpetually single and living in their parents’ basement? Has she spent years pining for someone who taught her everything she knew, but now he’s living with someone else? Has he spent years waiting tables, but never thought to set down roots or make a life for himself before? Depending on the conflict that drives your story, and the characters behind it, viewers will have an easier or harder time relating to the world you’re showing them.
Create character profiles
To make your short story sing, you need to give your cast of characters a depth of motivation and a sound psychological profile. Start with an analysis of the characters’ primary desires and dislikes, then identify how each character wants, likes, needs, or fears the same thing. Every character wants something from someone else, so identify what the other party ultimately wants back. To reach a dramatic climax, a character must be forced to make a choice between competing desires, in conjunction with the resistance of the other party.
Use the opposition of character desires, rather than violent outbursts or fistfights, to create a sense of urgency in the film. If each character wants something from the other, what will they do to get it? Engage the audience with this kind of character transformation, keeping in mind that the greater their change, the more sympathetic they become. Each character should be placed in a situation that forces them to embrace their goal forcefully, either by pushing away their opposition or pulling the goal closer, until the climax.
Get to know your location
Each location needs to look organic and distinct at the film, so study other films and consider what defines how different locations look and feel. Then, you’ll want to watch films that are similar to your story — but with a watchful eye. Pay attention to the script, not just the visuals. Your dialogue will be shorter, so take time to consider pacing in each shot and how to make the language fly. Even if you don’t plan on shooting where the script suggests, study dialogue delivery as you watch to study how shots and edits can set up or pay off lines.
Now decide what arena you will shoot your short in. Give it some thought — is your film set on a vehicle, a farm, an urban apartment? Without a landscape or setting, your film falls into the trap of looking too stagey or overdone, so make sure the location adds something unique to your story. If you’re writing a period drama, for example, the location should help make the characters’ interaction with the setting as organic as possible. And if it can’t, or you simply don’t have time, it shouldn’t stick out.
Write the treatment/mini-outline
There is a page-long outline known as the screenplay treatment. It isn’t so much an outline of your story as it is an outline of the six to 10 scenes that make up your story. At this point, you’re not worried about writing dialogue or maintaining a shooting schedule, you’re just working to make sure that each scene leads to the next logically and that they each also work as individual plot building blocks.
Although short films are all about focusing on a small narrative, this does mean that short films should be both complicated and simple. Complicated short films tend to have a “for its own sake” quality about them, with arbitrary plots that don’t really go anywhere, changing locations and backstories in an almost bewildering flurry of details. Simpler short films are also possible, but those will depend on a real emotional story and characters, rather than a lot of external drama. Whatever your choice, be sure to write more than just a mini-outline — also write a full treatment that is essentially a complete version of your script. This will be much more detailed, and it shows that you’ve given this a lot of thought. And an overly complicated plot may just be, well, complicated — which is usually distracting, to say the least.
Make a storyboard
Storyboarding is crucial for short film directors, both to guide the overall production and to ensure that each scene is cohesive in working both during and outside of the intended shot. Writing in detail where every scene will perform is a simple yet effective way to make sure your audience will remain captivated.
If the basic plot hangs together, that’s good, but more detailed storyboarding will prove more helpful further down the line. A shot-by-shot storyboard will help you to plan exactly how you want your film to appear when you’re finally filming — whether that’s an experimental, poetic style or an intricate, fast-paced approach to cinematography. Just make sure to fill in as many details as possible, whether it’s key dialogue, special effects, or a particularly weird camera angle. Adapting a point of view from a novel is interesting, but you might find it more enticing to explore a setting or become a character’s confidant in your film. Telling a story before the introduction of characters or then recounting events is another technique that can be particularly novel.
The length of your short film is going to determine how many beats you can include, but since short films must tell entirely contained stories, the movie should be just as compelling whether it’s 5 minutes or 40 minutes long. While 10 to 20 minutes is the most common length for short films, as long as you’re creating active, engaging scenes, and you keep a solid pace throughout, there is no end to the potential lengths of your short film. In this respect, consider the tools you have available to you as a filmmaker. Short films lend themselves extremely well to the one-shot, or long-take style, where you keep a static camera angle and move through every scene without cutting — this way, you prevent your viewers from getting antsy from boredom or confusion about what is supposed to be happening next. It’s a visually arresting style that can make the best short films absolutely gripping, and if you want your piece to be one that fans will rave about later, forego any editing and see how many emotional beats and story elements you can pack into a single shot.
It’s not at all unrealistic to get from a hook to a climax in 10 minutes — however, even a few seconds of dead silence can be frustrating to an audience. Vary your beat lengths and include many moments for visual storytelling. If someone walks toward or away from a door, keep the camera trained on the door, and let the audience fill in the details themselves. They might conjure up an entire backstory simply from a detailed close-up, and even if they draw all of the wrong conclusions, they’ll remember the film because of its elegance. And in the end, that’s what you want — the audience’s interest.
Create your beats
Writing a short film means that you only have a vague overall structure, and minutes to tell your story through that structure. Every short film should be a complete narrative in itself — complete in character arcs and plot turns. Before you begin writing you have to do some thinking about how you’re going to represent each of the beats of your story in the time you’ve got left. A good way to get used to this concept is to learn and apply the widely used Beat Sheet as a tool for pointing you in the right direction.
Once you’ve pitched your story as beats, in either pin/post-it note form or an outliner, you can break them out into a drafting process — starting with an outline, where you work out the logistics of the beats themselves, moving into a treatment, to flesh out the details around the chart of beats, and finishing on a script. Treat the stages of development as a journey you’ll need to go through. As you continue to work on your plot beats, you’ll inevitably be inspired to go off the rails a little bit and embellish — but try to see each deviation as a detour along the way to where you’re ultimately headed. The more you can consider the short film as a whole, the stronger it will be.
Chop down to the essence
Short films share many elements with long-form films, but screenwriters must account for a shorter runtime — especially in today’s tightly-edited and compressed television climate. Although you may have written your film from a longer story, gather a group of friends and run your own “pitch marathon.” Then narrow your story down to what’s essential by jettisoning unneeded characters and scenes. When you run your film before an audience, make sure you have someone manning the stopwatch. This will help you split your story into self-contained chunks, and you’ll be able to use their suggestions to help you streamline and focus your story. It may be painful to drop your characters at this stage, but think of it like a bodybuilder who disappears their fat before going onstage.
If your film has a character, take out that character’s scenes, and then remove the scenes of any extraneous characters. If it doesn’t, remove the redundant housekeeping setting, geographic, and identity information. The next day, go through the first chunk and remove any scenes that don’t directly relate to what happens next. For example, if you remove a character’s beginning, that’s the next step — not the character overcoming her fears and throwing herself in the river. If you want audiences to follow and care about a character, the character should change due to the struggles she suffers in the film — otherwise, why is she in it?
Write a script with a beginning, middle and end
Good short films feature stories with strong arcs — they don’t just start, happen, and end, but rise and fall like a wave on the world’s most crowded beach. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to turn your story into a novel’s length saga. It just means you should examine each of your film’s key moments, or acts, and find ways to strengthen their emotional significance. If you know your film “begins” when someone’s routine is disrupted and “ends” when the protagonist has had a major change of heart, you can find the major plot points in between and emphasize those.
While we encourage you to enjoy the creative freedom of writing a short film, don’t lose sight of the standard three act structure. While it’s hard to generalize too much, most of the best short films are following some version of those rules– whether they’ve chosen to reveal act breaks or not. So do your best to be sure that the story you’re telling is being clearly developed.
Stay in the moment
Reframe your thinking about making a short film with the idea that the essence of great storytelling isn’t plot but character. If you write characters who the audience cares about, they will make time to focus on you even if your story doesn’t go as planned.
It may be difficult to distance yourself at first from the demands of your mind — the time-and-plot-oriented structure of the storytelling lingers deep in your being — but sit with it until it feels right. Once you have that in mind, keep in mind that you have less filler time that you’d have in a full-length film. The story has to get its point across quickly and clearly, so nothing can be extraneous. Apply this to your script right off the bat — chances are good you’ll have to revise at least once after you get your main points down.
Connect with your audience
Targeting your audience means having clear intent behind your film, whether you’re trying to foster hope and social change, make an inspiring leap for equality, or simply make people laugh. Having a clear mission not only makes your story more relatable to your viewers, but can help draw them in with a unique hook, setting your film apart from every other script out there. If you’re worried about where to start with your short film, look no further than the good old five Ws — who, what, why, when, and where. Consider what it is that you’d want from a film that shares your purpose, and figure out how to communicate your message through a clever inclusion and combination of these traits.
Write your short film
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what level of project you’re writing for — a script for a short film or a full-length feature — the rules of storytelling are the same. A good story follows a well-defined character arc and explores a single compelling conflict — a quest to save the world or the struggle to fit in at high school — and it avoids unnecessary story elements that might grow tiresome to readers — nine vampire slayers looking for revenge on the killer they failed to stop three centuries ago. When you’re thinking about how to write a script, you’re holding the whole story in your mind. So close your eyes, imagine your story taking shape, and let your brain make it real on the page.
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