This is a guest post from Alex Bloom, founder of Script Reader Pro.
If you’re thinking about writing a short film, or have already written one but feel it needs some work, here are five key tips to consider.
I will be using the short film, 14e Arrondissement, by Alexander Payne as an example for each tip, so it'd be a good idea to watch it first.
Alright, now let's dive into those tips.
Do Your Research
The first thing you want to do when writing a short film, is to get together a list of at least ten shorts that are similar to yours. Find films that are in the same genre and share the same sensibilities. Then watch them, study them, and break them down in order to see how they really work.
A good way of doing this is by writing an outline of the film as you watch it. This involves simply typing out what happens in each scene as it occurs on screen. Write a couple of sentences describing only the most important beats, and by the end you will have an outline of the entire movie that you can use to study and break down.
For example, for the opening scenes of 14e Arrondissement, you could write:
A middle-aged American woman, Carol, looks out at Paris from her hotel window. In Voice Over, she reads an account of her trip to her French class, saying how she loved Paris but the food wasn’t as good as she expected.
Carol walks the streets, saying she wanted an adventure. She asks for directions to a restaurant in French, and a woman directs her in English.
Carol sits alone in a restaurant, saying how Paris is where people go to find love and inspiration, but at her age she doesn’t expect it.
Once you’ve completed the outline, go back and break down the structure, making a note where the turning points occur and how the characters drive the action. Do this for at least ten short movies in your chosen genre and you will be that much better prepared to start writing.
Focus Your Concept
In a short film, you don’t have the time or space to come up with complicated concepts, so stick to something simple. Focus on one simple core conflict — a protagonist struggling to overcome an antagonist (or force of antagonism) over something at stake.
To achieve this you can use the same formula found in feature films, in which all conflict is in some way to do with death — either literal death or figurative death.
In Horror, Thriller, and Action/Adventure, the protagonist is up against an antagonist and fighting over something at stake that may result in their literal death (and often the deaths of many more people as well).
In Drama and Comedy, the protagonist is fighting over something at stake that may result in their figurative death. We know they that if they don’t, say, find love, they’ll “die” a little bit inside.
In 14e Arrondissement, the story of a lonely woman visiting Paris is a very simple idea, and it works because we can identify with Carol and understand what’s at stake in her life. Will she ever meet anyone and be able to share wonderful moments like the ones she experienced in Paris with someone else?
Make Sure There’s Something Original/Interesting Going On
Be sure to bring something fresh to the table. Even if it’s a familiar situation in a familiar genre, have a think about what twist you can add to make sure we’re not left watching something we’ve seen a million times before.
For example, the obvious way to approach the concept in 14e Arrondissement, of a lonely woman visiting Paris for the first time, would be to have us hear her thoughts in English.
Alexander Payne, though, has a different take on the story and lets us hear Carol read an account of her trip to an unseen class in broken French. This not only gives a fresh perspective to proceedings but also adds much humor to what otherwise could have turned into a quite depressing six minutes.
Write With A Low Budget In Mind
One of the main reasons why short films fail to get off the ground is because they overstretch themselves on budget. So it’s important to remember that the script you write will hopefully one day be filmed — and filming is expensive.
Everything that goes on the page will need to be budgeted for, so rather than write a story which contains five characters, write one that contains two. Or one. 14e Arrondissement, is perfect in this regard as we only have one character, Carol, and one other short speaking part in the woman who gives her directions.
Remember that every actor will potentially need paying, feeding and transporting to and from set (or at least need persuading to participate for free), so the less characters you write into the story the better.
The same logic applies to locations. Avoid writing scripts which jump location from, say, New York to Austin to LA. Stick to one area and preferably one location within that area.
14e Arrondissement sticks to Paris which, for Alexander Payne’s budget, made perfect sense. He may have wished to write a story about a woman who goes on a road trip through France, but didn’t due to budgetary constraints.
Also, it goes without saying that you should avoid writing anything that will require any kind of special effects or stunt work. If you want to write lines like “The demon shoots up into the air and perches on top of the tower”, then bear in mind just how difficult this will be to actually film.
Limit To Ten Minutes
Submitting a well written and produced short movie to a festival can be a fantastic way of kickstarting a career in film. However, the ones which get in and get a chance to compete in the first place are usually the ones which clock in at ten minutes or less.
This is simply because programmers want to fit as many shorts into a festival as possible, and so a movie that’s twenty minutes long is likely to get passed over in favor of one that’s considerably shorter. In general, aim to get in, tell your story, and get out as quickly as possible.
14e Arrondissement could have easily run on for ten minutes or longer, but is all done in under seven minutes. Aim to tell your story with just as much economy and fight the temptation to write more just because you can. Make sure that every scene reveals character and moves the plot forward, or else it either needs to be reworked or cut.
Tried of receiving script coverage that says vague things like “Let the story breathe” or “Your protagonist needs to be more likable”? Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy that prides itself on delivering non-vague, actionable screenplay coverage courtesy of working Hollywood screenwriters.
If you enjoyed this article, you'll love the Filmmaker's Process newsletter. Each week, we share our latest posts, a weekly filmmaking resource, curated stories from around the web, a short film that we love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.
Are you ready to take your filmmaking to the next level?