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How to Improve Your Feature Scripts by Writing Shorts

How to become a screenwriter. Screenplay Contests. Screenwriting Contests.

By Lee Hamilton.

 

Why would someone waste their time writing a short film? “They don’t make any money,” “I don’t know anyone who watches them,” and “I don’t want a career in short filmmaking” are common answers from reluctant writers, but they’re missing the point. There are tons of great reasons as to why you absolutely should be writing short films – especially if you want to write features.

YOU’LL LEARN THE CRAFT QUICKER

Getting accolades for your first feature can be tough. Writing an original and professional script of 90 minutes or more intense storytelling is a challenge for any screenwriter. And potentially even more so when you are just starting out. Problem is, it can take a really long time to write a feature, and subsequently, that slows how quickly you learn the craft. But you can boost that progress by writing short scripts as practice, which makes writing shorts an excellent shortcut to learning all the skills you need to write that great feature film idea you have.

 

IT TEACHES YOU TO CONSTRAIN STORY

A short isn’t a condensed feature film, it’s not a trailer, and it’s not a proof-of-concept. Yes, it absolutely can be used as all of those things, but a short film is a self-contained story all to itself with a beginning, middle, and end. While a short film can be anything up to 45mins long, the current consensus is ‘the shorter, the better’, forcing writers to trim back on the character development, the backstory, the subplots, and to only explore one single conflict. Having one simple but compelling premise helps pull your focus, as you don’t have the same amount of time that a feature has to explore different facets of a character’s life, or the same amount of budget, meaning you also need to limit the number of locations, characters, or SFX, etc.

 

YOU’LL LEARN HOW TO HOOK THE READER

In a feature script, the first act provides ample time for you to establish the world, introduce the characters, and write the setup, all leading to the inciting incident. In a short, you don’t have that luxury, so jumping straight into the story is a must. A strong opening image is pivotal, followed by quickly delivering the compelling premise. But you don’t just need a great hook at the beginning, to make your short memorable, hooks are often employed at the end of the film too. Leaving your reader on a powerful image, an unexpected twist, or emotional punch is how to create an unforgettable script. Learning how to hook the reader in short form will teach you how to apply it to a longer piece, where act breaks, turning points, and story beats are effectively doing the same thing; creating hooks to engage your audience.

 

IT TEACHES YOU TO SHOW, NOT TELL

Short films give you an ideal opportunity to learn the coveted ‘show, don’t tell’ principle. With shorts, there is a limitation on the amount of exposition you can deliver in the time available. Using imagery or action to reveal a character’s thoughts and emotions cuts down opportunities for you to get trapped in time-consuming on-the-nose dialogue and it often generates a more powerful impact too. So, don’t think it’s just a space-saving device for the sake of it; film is a visual medium, so using imagery to tell the story should always be a priority. With the constraints that come with short films, you’ll be forced to come up with creative ways to portray characters, reveal the plot, generate a mood, etc.

 

IT TEACHES YOU TO WRITE LEANER

When you’ve only got a handful of pages available to you, there isn’t much room for detailed scene description, shot transitions, unnecessary parentheticals, or over-direction of the actors, etc. Writing shorts is a great way to learn how to trim off the fat from your feature-length scripts, and a leaner script means a more effective story and a quicker read! You’ll find yourself re-wording sentences to get rid of orphans (the one or two words that take up a whole line on the page to themselves), you’ll limit the novelistic writing, only telling us what we can see on the screen, you’ll remove any repetition, and you’ll be saying the same thing but using fewer words by abbreviating as well as cutting out inactive words that hamper the pace.

 

There are a lot of obvious advantages to writing short scripts; they’re a great calling card, they take less time to write, most successful screenwriters started off writing them, they’re easier to get produced, and they can help you gain representation. But they’re also a really great way to learn how to write features in a bite-sized manageable way that isn’t overwhelming. They can help you explore small ideas that have the potential to grow into longer pieces, be fun writing challenges/exercises, help you solve story problems, and help maintain your passion for storytelling in the process. And yes, writing shorts will absolutely help improve your feature writing skills, so what have you got to lose?

 


Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.

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