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While a lot of our readers are first-time adventurers, full-time cinematographers, or half-time hobbyists, it could be the case that you’ve never actually written a screenplay before.
That said, you don’t need to know how to write a script to create a short film.
For instance, you may have already gone out and shot someone else’s short film, or filmed a short with your friends based on a treatment or general outline. You might not have needed a script at all!
However, if you haven’t written a screenplay in a screenwriting format for a short film, from Fade In to Roll End Credits, then this article is for you.
Now if you have written a screenplay before, and you’re here to test your knowledge, you may very well pick up on something new.
There are many ways to write a script, let alone a short, and this is just one screenwriter’s advice. But since you never know how what you hear will impact your creative work, it’s always good to read everything you can and steal what you like (and leave the rest).
Here’s how to write a screenplay for a short film!
Short Film Narrative Structure.
Short films follow the same narrative structure as any story. But when writing a short film, you don’t have time for, nor do you need, as many story beats as a feature film. The same ups and downs that make feature films so interesting aren’t necessary or possible in a short film.
However, your short film will still need to follow a similar story structure to be satisfying to viewers who are used to a certain type of storytelling. How do you do this? You simplify it.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to take the same Story Circle Method mentioned in our article on How to Write a Screenplay that Works and apply it to short films. I like to do this by boiling all my short film ideas and their structure down to a simple concept:
The Moment Of Decision.
Every great short film, hell every great scene, hinges on a critical moment of decision. As in life, it’s the choices characters make that define them, and by extension, define our stories.
In a short film, you don’t really have time for a character to undergo an entire character arc. Don’t get me wrong, they still need to change – but that change is best represented in a critical moment of decision.
For example, if your character is a greedy scrooge who hoards his money, a chance run-in with a poor orphan on the street could culminate in his decision whether or not to give the orphan a dollar.
It’s a simple premise, but once you decide that moment of whether or not to give the dollar as the climax of your short film, the conflict of the story then becomes all about how this man who wouldn’t give a penny to his mother, let alone a dirt-caked street orphan, could be convinced to do so – or not do so.
How does a character get to a moment of decision in a satisfying way?
In order to earn this moment and get it to land, you will first need to set up your character’s goal the same way you would in any other story.
But in a short film, you have way less time to do it.
In the case of Mr. Scrooge and his orphan opposition, all Scrooge’s goal has to be is get away from the orphan as quickly as possible. Goals in shorts can be that simple, and in a short film, the simpler a character’s goal is, the better.
Scrooge’s conflict (and the conflict of your story) then becomes the many ways “The Orphan” convinces him not to get away. And now you have a story for a short film!
Narrative Structure: Short Films VS. Feature Films.
I sometimes find it easiest to understand the difference between shorts and feature films directly by comparing them together:
In a feature film, the character is in a zone of comfort but wants something, and enters an unfamiliar situation. In a feature this can take up a whole 30 minutes of build-up, sometimes less, sometimes more.
In a short film, this should happen in 3 minutes… or less! In fact, the best short films often set up what a character wants within the first 30 seconds of the film, and within at least a one to two minute window, they are thrust into an unfamiliar situation to get it.
In a feature film, that character then undergoes a series of trials as they adapt to their new circumstances. This takes up the majority of the first half of the second act leading up to the midpoint, where they get what they want – or at least a version of what they want.
In a short film, this trial period is often simplified to a single trial or one series of trials around a single conflict. It keeps the story simpler, and if done well, more impactful because of it.
But what about the midpoint in a short?
The role a midpoint usually plays in a feature is oftentimes the climax of a short.
At the midpoint of a feature, a character gets what they want, and then pays a heavy price for it afterward.
In a short built around a moment of decision, the character might get what they want, but it will usually be the last thing they do. It’ll be where the character makes their final decision and decide to acknowledge a weakness, embrace a strength, and make a change.
Short films can still have midpoints in the traditional story-structure sense, but if the character gets what they want, it’s often a short victory that lasts only for a fleeting moment.
Think about it – as a short, you don’t have enough time for much of anything.
You’re trying to build a whole story about a character trying and failing to achieve a specific goal, and then show how that goal wasn’t what they needed all along. Oftentimes, these lessons are learned in a single choice, and when the choice is made, it is seldom reversible.
The Final Decision.
In the case of a short film, the decision the character makes, and the ramifications of that decision will be the lasting message or theme that you leave your audience with.
In your outline, ask yourself, “what do my characters learn about themselves as they make their final decision?”
In a lot of cases, this lesson is the point of the short film you are writing – whether you realize it right away or not.
In a longer film, this would be explored more thoroughly through the resolution, but in the case of a short film, there isn’t much time for a long resolution.
If you can, try to leave the audience with an impactful closing visual, and let them discuss the resolution and what they think it is for themselves after the movie is over!
If you can rhyme this closing image with a matching, or parallel, opening image, you create visual poetry using one of the best narrative tools available to writers and directors.
Film, after all, is unique in its ability to contrast images through the art of editing. The juxtaposition of images has been, since the art of film’s crudest forms, the essence of cinematic storytelling.
Applying This to an Actual Story
While this all sounds good in theory, how will it all shake up with a real story? Let’s try it by returning to our story of Scrooge and the Orphan.
Scrooge is walking down the street. A dirt-covered Orphan watches him from his corner of the street. Seeing Scrooge in his nice coat, the Orphan stands up, and approaches Scrooge for “alms for the poor.” Scrooge throws the Orphan a quick glance and then fixes his gaze straight ahead.
Within 30 seconds we know Scrooge’s goal: get away as quickly as possible. And we know the Orphan’s goal is to get Scrooge to give him some alms. Conflict!
So what keeps Scrooge? It could be superficial at first. Maybe the Orphan stands in Scrooge’s way, and Scrooge is afraid he’ll touch him and dirty his nice coat.
But then it gets deeper. Maybe the Orphan says something that really makes Scrooge think. Maybe he feels the need to defend himself, so he goes off on a tangent.
Or maybe we get a flashback to Scrooge’s own youth as he remembers how a Rich Tycoon walked past him, and how he felt, when he was a poor little boy himself.
Maybe Scrooge’s deepest fear is being powerless, and in his debate with the Orphan, he finds an opportunity to flex his power over the Orphan. Or maybe the Orphan, without even meaning to, disarms Scrooge by revealing the Orphan’s own power: empathy.
Let’s say the Orphan agrees with Scrooge – the world is unfair to Scrooge, and he should be treated better. It’s so unfair that everyone asks him for money he worked his whole life to earn. “Who do they think they are?”
All of a sudden the two are in total alignment – and now Scrooge doesn’t even want to leave!
The story could go in any number of directions from here – maybe Scrooge soon realizes he’s being manipulated and lashes out. He could realize he’s being tricked and double down on his rude, misanthropic behavior. He could even parallel the behavior of the Rich Tycoon from his flashback!
Or maybe he has a genuine realization. Maybe Scrooge realizes that he is too stingy, and his stinginess left him with no one to talk to but this Orphan. In that situation, maybe he decides not to give the Orphan a dollar – but writes him a check for a hundred dollars instead!
And just like that, you have a satisfying short built around a climactic moment of decision.
See, Scrooge doesn’t have to go change his entire life over the course of the short for his character arc to be satisfied. All it takes is a single moment of decision, cleverly plotted to keep the audience entertained, to show how a character changes through the course of the story.
Why Write Short Films Instead of Features?
Feature films, even at their cheapest, are incredibly expensive. While writing doesn’t cost anything, original feature scripts are still a difficult sell. In years prior, the spec market was booming and writers were selling original feature scripts left and right.
Now, those days are long gone, and indie features are harder to sell than ever – for anyone, let alone first-timers.
Short films, however, have never been easier to create. With high-quality cameras being more widespread and affordable than ever, creating a short film that looks and sounds professional is a viable option for everyone. You can even shoot a high quality short on your iPhone camera!
Plus, writing and creating short films is still one of the best ways to learn and practice your craft. And with the prevalence of Youtube, Vimeo, and plenty of other short-form video platforms available, it’s never been easier to get your work out there for people to see.
By focusing your short scripts around one character’s moment of decision, in particular, you can still create a character arc that fulfills the conventions of western narrative story structure within the confines of a short film format.
And you can do it without making an overly complicated plot that’s clearly better served as a feature.
Better yet – if you can write a well-paced, cleverly written short film around two larger than life characters where one has to make a climactic moment of decision, you can use that as a proof of concept to sell a longer story about the same characters, or as a calling card to pitch yourself as a writer or director for other stories.
In this way, writing and directing your own short films is your best bet to prove yourself as a writer/director capable of writing and directing your own feature films, TV episodes, or whatever other types of content will be popular as we move through this new decade of media.
So make sure you get it right before you write with a strong outline based on a story structure that works!