Ah, the short film. A staple of film students and cinephiles alike. If you are a film student, you have made (or will make) a few films during your program. Even if you’re not a student, short films are still a wonderful way to practice your skills, build up your reel and portfolio, and perhaps even get your work seen at film festivals. Shorts, however, don’t have much marketability, aside from a few up-and-coming video on-demand platforms. (But that’s for a different article.)
No matter your reason for making a short film, it all begins with a good script. So I want to focus on a few tips for writing a short film script, specifically the two main ingredients of a story – Plot and Character.
You remember in English class, in the 3-5 page essay assignments, your teacher talked about limiting the scope of your paper to something you could actually cover in a paper of that length? You can’t cover the entire Civil War in a 3-page essay, and even if you tried, the paper wouldn’t go very deep because you’d have to gloss over too many things.
It’s the same with a short film script. Instead of trying to build a detailed, complex plot, maybe focus on just a slice of it, or a smaller moment in time. Capture it. Explore it. You don’t have a lot of screen time for your film to build deep character back-stories, or wander off into subplots. Keep the story-line unified and coherent, and even if it has subplots, keep them lean and relevant to the main plot.
Pixar shorts are some of the best ones you can study. They usually have no dialogue or minimal dialogue, but the stories are memorable, funny, and touching. Like this one.
Reading short stories is also a wonderful way to fuel your creativity, and to learn how prose writers keep their stories lean, yet engaging.
You don’t have much screen time for a complex plot, and you also don’t have much screen time for lots of characters. Do you want to introduce a lot of characters briefly, or, would it serve the story better to focus on a few characters – or even just one character – and explore them more deeply?
Even if you focus on one character, there isn’t much time to spend on exposition. Is there a particular aspect of the character – an attitude, a desire, a hurt – that is most relevant to the story you want to tell?
In any story, no matter the length, there must be conflict. It is the stuff stories are made of. Is there conflict between two main characters, or an internal conflict that a character must face within herself?
Whether or not you make the short films you write, writing short scripts is a helpful exercise to flex your creative muscles. It will help you learn the basics of storytelling, refine your craft, and develop your voice as a writer.
Writing anything of substance takes time, whether it is 1 page or 100 pages. So don’t be mistaken in thinking you can write a good short script quickly. As French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” It is usually more difficult to write something concise. Your challenge in writing a short script is to hold your audience’s attention while giving them something worthwhile, in as few pages as possible.