Writing a Short Film

  • writing-a-short-film

    It should be stated right now – a short film isn’t a condensed feature film and writers (and directors) who are reluctant to accept this invariably fail.

    The key to writing a short film is to keep it simple. It’s just not possible to squeeze a feature film idea or a particularly complex idea into a short format and do it justice. It’s a bit like trying to squeeze a novel into a short story – they’re different animals.

    Focus on One Core Idea

    focusIt is duly noted that there are numerous successful short films that are experimental or metaphorical or anti-structure. These films don’t follow a conventional narrative or structure. And that is absolutely cool. But whether you are exploring a heady concept or telling a conventional story – your screenplay needs to consist of one core idea and everything needs to serve that idea – every action, image and line of dialogue. There’s no time to develop an elaborate plot, a raft of characters or lengthy set ups.

    Multi-layered stories aren’t going to work and neither are stories, which rely heavily on the main character’s back-story. You simply will not have time to explore back-story. It’s also best to avoid subplots, numerous characters, multi-protagonists, expensive set pieces, and stories set in two or more different time periods.

    Scope Your Story

    Once you have a basic story idea, there are some questions to be asked and a number of decisions to be made:

    • What is the core idea? What is my story about? (Premise)
    • Who is it about? (Protagonist)
    • What is the genre and style of my screenplay?
    • Who or what is giving the Protagonist grief? (Antagonist)
    • What is the question of my story?
    • Whose POV is the story told from?
    • What happens in my story? (Plot)
    • How does it happen? (Structure)
    • What is my screenplay about thematically?
    • How can I convey my plot, action and theme in images?

    Try to write your story idea down in a single sentence as in:
    This story is about a ________ who ________ and ________ but then ________ .

    Know Your Protagonist

    questionAsk yourself is – who is the story happening to, i.e. who is my Protagonist? The Protagonist in any story is the central character, the character that the story is about and whose life is being made difficult or who simply wants something to change. They might not even necessarily be human, but they are the character the audience will be following.

    Know Your Antagonist

    alienSo once you know your protagonist and have an idea about genre – ask yourself what does my protagonist want; and who or what is stopping him/her? Or more simply – who or what is my Antagonist?

    An antagonist can take many forms, anything from another character or monster to a force of nature or a council with a new bylaw. It or they is whatever is making the Protagonist’s life difficult.

    Define Your Genre

    Ask yourself – what type of film will this be made into? And what will the audience expect from a film in this genre? This is not about crushing experimentation or creativity but more as a reminder to self as you proceed, that your original goal was to write a short screenplay that scared / moved / amused / shocked the audience. When you get stuck, you can go back to this intention to remind yourself of your original goal.

    Define the Tone and Style

    You may also like to clarify for yourself what tone and style you have in mind, as this will influence the way you write your action and your dialogue. In the end the tone will be dictated by the director and the performances he/she elicits from actors, but the screenplay still establishes the foundations of the film’s ultimate tone by choices made by the writer in their characters, plot, direction (or big print), symbolism and dialogue.

    Decide on the Point of View

    Whose Point Of View (POV) are we seeing this story through? Is it the protagonist or is someone else narrating the story? There are numerous examples of this type of narration – two that spring to mind are “Ray” (d. & w. Tony Mahony) and “Zinky Boys Go Underground” (d.Paul Tickell, w.Adsid Tantimedh).

    Focus on the Central Question

    central-questionWhat is the question that drives the action of the story? Simple examples of such questions are Will the boy win the girl? or Will the boy ever meet his hero? The question of the film should be answered in some way by the conclusion of the film – even if the answer is ambiguous. The question of a short film can be tiny and very simple.

    For a great example of a simple, universal story with a simple question, watch the Oscar nominated Two Cars, One Night (Taika Waititi).

    Weaving the Plot

    Brainstorm for possible events in the story without censoring yourself. Ask – what could possibly happen to my character given his/her situation? What could he/she possibly do? And then – what might happen as a result of his/her actions? Many elements will influence what happens in your story, including genre, pace and what you’re hoping to elicit from your audience. If you’re writing a comedy and you want the audience to laugh, then some funny stuff should be happening in your plot.

    Reconstructing the Plot

    When you’re re-drafting, you may realize that certain plot points or actions just don’t work in the genre you’ve chosen or they don’t illustrate the theme well or distract from the story you want to tell. At this point, you’ll change the plot points to find a more satisfying series of events and actions – and hopefully a more satisfying story.

    Identifying the Theme

    themeIt’s simple enough to state what the story is about e.g. A man goes to extreme lengths in order to keep his dog. The underlying meaning of the story known as the Theme is more difficult to identify. It infuses the characters, emotional core, and plot. The theme can even be revealed in images, symbolism, and setting.

    In an idea about the man trying to keep his dog – the theme might be loneliness or the desire to be loved. It could even be about the ridiculous nature of bureaucracy. And once you have identified what your story is about on a deeper level it can help you to improve the piece and give it unity by asking – do my images, symbols, music, motifs, scenarios and locations reflect my theme?

    Re-writing a Short Film

    Find More Efficient Ways to Convey Information

    edit-scenesBecause you are short on time, any unnecessary business that doesn’t propel the story forward or isn’t necessary to the story should be avoided. For example, people driving or walking from one place to another – if the audience doesn’t need to see it, cut it out. The writer is constantly being challenged to find quicker or shorter ways to convey information. Consider the following cinematic techniques:

    • Images/Symbolism
    • Sound/Music
    • Montage
    • Recurring Motif
    • Choice of Location
    • Effective / Visual Characterization

    Make Every Word of Dialogue Count

    Ask yourself – how can I convey this same meaning in fewer words? When you are editing consider the following:

    • Is the same thing being said twice?
    • Can lines be replaced with an action that conveys the same meaning?
    • Is the dialogue telling us something we can see?
    • Is verbal conflict moving the story forward or revealing information about the character? If not – why is it there?
    • Is the exposition natural or clumsy?
    • Is the dialogue true to this type of character?

    If your character’s dialogue isn’t moving the story forward, revealing information about them or someone else then it probably needs editing or re-writing.

    Tip: Read your dialogue out loud. You’ll very rapidly discover what sounds clunky and long-winded.

    Take a Break – Then Re-evaluate Your First Draft

    rewritingAn overwritten first draft is very common and writers are invariably and understandably resistant to significant editing because they have an emotional connection to the work. So how do you overcome this problem?
    Firstly step back from the work (often having a break from it is a good idea) and before you start any re-writing, take an hour to ask yourself (and write down the answers to) the following questions:

    • What is the core idea of this script?
    • What genre am I in?
    • What emotions do I want to create in the audience?

    Examine the main character, main and plot points – do they contribute to the core idea of your script? Is there too much back-story? Is all the interesting stuff happening in the past? If so, re-think your core story. What is the story or story element that excites you?

    Examine Each Scene

    Ask yourself:

    • What is the purpose of this scene?*
    • Does this scene contribute to the core idea?
    • Does this scene end on a question that will lead the reader/viewer into the rest of the story?
    • If a scene isn’t working – can I brainstorm another idea for the scene?
    • Have I given too much screen time to unimportant or minor characters?
    • What is the question posed by the beginning of your story? Does my script answer it? (If your script revolves around a bank robbery, your climax can’t be about the robber’s marriage break up.

    *If you can’t answer the question that’s a good indicator that the scene might be redundant.

    © Kathryn Burnett 2015

  • author

    Kathryn Burnett

    New Zealand based Kathryn Burnett is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, script development consultant and workshop facilitator who has worked in film and television for 20 years. She has significant television, short and feature film credits and wrote the multi-award-winning short film “Shelved”. In 2011, she created a series of ideation training workshops and has been helping organisations and individuals be their creative best ever since.

    Wanna fire up your next project? Sign up for Kathryn's excellent Creative Action Plan on her website.

    Shortfilm Writing Checklist:

    • Focus on One Core Idea
    • Scope Your Story
    • Who is the Protagonist?
    • Define Your Genre
    • Define the Tone and Style
    • Know Your Antagonist
    • Decide on the Point of View
    • Focus on the Central Question
    • Weaving the Plot
    • Reconstructing the Plot
    • Identifying the Theme

    Re-writing a Short Film:

    • Find More Efficient Ways to Convey Information
    • Make Every Word of Dialogue Count
    • Take a Break – Then Re-evaluate Your First Draft


    Screenplay Checklist

    There are 8 common mistakes that can send a script on the reject pile – even if the idea is good. Give your screenplay a fighting chance with this checklist. Read the article or sign up free to download the checklist (and heaps of other free resources) from Filmsourcing members area.