Writing a short film script presents many of the same challenges as writing as feature film. In some ways perhaps, the challenge is greater; the feature writer has 90 – 120 pages to tell his story, you only have 10 to 15 minutes to tell a compelling story and provoke an emotional response in your audience. The short film writer must present a coherent plot, developed characters with flaws and goals, an interesting situation and a theme that will make his audience ponder the filmmaker’s great understanding of the world in which we live. Easy, huh?
But too many short films made today are what I call “one joke” films. That is, they really have no plot and rely on pretty visuals, impressive effects or a quirky twist to justify their existence. This is not the kind of film you should aim to make, you can do better. Yes, I know you’ve seen these films get a zillions hits on YouTube and heard stories of Dreamworks calling the young gun in to direct a feature. But these are mostly just stories. A short film is usually not a passport to riches or opportunity. What it is is a tried and tested education in the art of film-making. Its parameters force you to think about clarity of storytelling in much the same way as short story writers used to before they got stuck into something bigger – it worked alright for Dickens and Checkov! And once you get your well-honed story onto set, you’re on an even bigger learning curve as you discover your story still doesn’t fly! But hey, it’s better than it might have been!
Somewhere along the line, it seems to have become acceptable to think of short films merely as a “calling card” to something bigger, not as a piece of art or entertainment in its own right. And so people release what really amount to long, drawn out “trailers” for sci-fi or zombie movies they want to make. Building an audience, and gaining an audience’s trust however, demands that you provide them with something more substantial, more tangible than flashy effects and pretty pictures shot with expensive lenses. You have to make them feel something.
By all means, make your film look beautiful, but first and foremost, create a story that will stick in people’s minds long after they have walked away from the screening, or tossed your DVD back on their desk.
I remember receiving feedback from a development executive at a government funded workshop, who told me that my short film script “Jubilee” had “Too much stuff in it, too much happens!” and that maybe I should simplify it. I made my film. When Jubilee premiered at the BFI London Film Festival that same exec said: “There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in there.”
So, to get that “interesting stuff” into your film, your short WILL follow these rules:
- It will rapidly and economically set up the main character, his world and his “problem.”
- The main character is in a special set of circumstances – this is NOT just another ordinary day!
- He/she has something particular to accomplish, get or do – an external goal.
- He/she will be pushed to some sort of emotional/moral boundary where they MUST take action.
- This action will force the character (or the audience) to change their perceptions. We (the audience) might learn, but as in the case of Jubilee, the tragedy is that the main character CANNOT change.
By the end of page one (if you’re script is 10 pages – please don’t let it be any longer!) the audience should know what your character wants to achieve (his goal). And we should get a taste of the world he is living in and some of it’s potential problems for him by the end of page two! Don’t mess about giving us his life story, what’s happening now? I got a great note from a writer when she read the very first draft of my script “War Hero.” I had a prisoner in a cell sniffling about his predicament, then being led down a corridor, into an interrogation chamber, and then strapped into a chair. (1 and a half pages of uselessness!!)
Just start with him strapped in the chair she suggested. Not only did I have a very cool opening image to startle the audience with (a bleeding, naked man!) but I’d saved a about a thousand pounds in locations and time! Your character can be whoever you like. The King of England or a lowly bank teller – but one thing should remain true in your short film – this isn’t just another day in his life. Or it might be UNTIL…??? Your character must be pushed to the very edge during the course of your film. Way out of his comfort zone!
Really good storytelling is more than just entertaining diversion. It examines the unsettling forces in our lives and helps us to live with and accept them both as individuals and members of society at large. It plants a theme in the audiences subconscious and forces them to questions their own motivations, fears and principles. And a good short does all this in 10 minutes! Alright, 15 if you must.
Below is the first page of War Hero: