Top 10 Things To Consider When Writing A Short Screenplay
by Shore Scripts reader, Lee Hamilton
Who is it for? If you’re writing a movie to entertain you and your friends or to practice filming techniques, go forth, have fun and enjoy. But if this movie is going to be your calling card as a writer or director, a product to sell, a competition entry or film festival submission, you need know your audience and their expectations. Does the competition or production company have a remit? A specific genre they’re looking for? Is the festival more likely to accept something that’s more artistic than entertaining etc.?
Have One Big Idea. You have limited time so try to focus on the story of one individual or a couple. Simple ideas are best so develop one major conflict, problem or question and forget about complex story threads and secondary character arcs. Think of your short as one major scene or sequence from a feature movie, where the focus is on one dilemma being played out and resolved. Drama and conflict, whether internal, external, emotional or action, is key to keeping the audience hooked.
Length. Technically, a short film can be anything from a few seconds up to 45 minutes but film festivals want to cram in as many films as they can and this means the shorter the better. Ideally, try to aim for 15 pages or less in order to maximize the likelihood of your film being selected. Shorter films are also cheaper to produce and have a better chance of holding the audience’s attention as the longer the film; the better it has to be.
Structure. Short scripts can be more lenient on the traditional feature length three-act structure but you still need to have a beginning, middle and end. While your protagonist doesn’t always necessarily have to have a visible character arc, shorts are great places to apply many other smaller structural devices such as the ‘Rule of Three’, use Setups and Payoffs, Reveals, Reversals and Montages. As with other formats, a compelling Hook or Inciting Incident is a must. Grab the viewers and don’t let them go.
Twists. When was the last time you actually sat through a whole short film? Our ever-decreasing attentions spans mean that you need to surprise your audiences and provide them with the unexpected. Having a plot twist at both the beginning and the end will help you to hook the viewers in, make them stay for the duration, and make sure that your film will be a memorable on when they leave. A great ending can forgive a bad beginning, so make sure you go out with a bang whenever possible.
Engage your audience. If your sending your script out to be read, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve done enough to keep the reader engaged. Normally, writers are advised to do this within the first ten pages of a script, but when a short script may not even be this long, you need to do it right from the start, on page one. This is where the writer’s unique voice needs to shine of the page. Let your writing style and word choice create an entertaining read by evoking tone, atmosphere and the theme of the story.
Make it Visual. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is something screenwriters are told all the time but surprisingly, many scripts are chock full of dialogue and more dialogue usually means a longer page count. Try to use an image to convey exposition wherever possible. Short films are most likely going to be shown on the big screen so creating visually stunning cinematic worthy imagery is a consideration too. There can be a tendency to forgive a poor story if a film looks fantastic in some festival judging, but audiences will be a bit savvier, make sure your excellent visuals are on par with your excellent story telling as well.
Budget. Write something that can realistically be produced. Budget becomes all the more important if you’re planning on filming the short yourself. There’s no point setting your story in an exotic location and filling it with expensive special effects, car chases, explosions or period settings if this is something you can’t achieve. Limiting the amount of locations used and dialogue-speaking characters can help shorten the time it takes to shoot a production. Don’t feel that considering budget will hamper your creativity when writing, on the contrary, it’ll strengthen your imagination and make your script more desirable at the same time.
Avoid Clichés. With time being of the essence in a short movie, it’s easy to slip in clichés and stereotypes in order to convey a lot of information in a shorter space of time. Unless you have a fresh and new take on a stereotype, try not to use them as it shows sloppy writing.
Marketing. Writing the script is just the first step of a much longer journey. Don’t forget that after you’ve written and produced your short, there’s still the task of actually getting it seen. While still at the ideas stage, make sure that your end product is something that your audience wants before going ahead and writing it. If your filming the short yourself, do you need to crowd fund enough money to make it first? If so, you’ll possibly need to write and shoot footage for a campaign. Also think about whether your idea has legs. Can it be made into a profitable series? Is your short a means of promoting a longer feature script? Could your story translate into another medium etc.? Maximize your scripts potential to be more than just a one off.