by 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 a film festival submission, you need to 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 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, are 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 attention 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 one 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 you’re 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 on the page. Let your writing style and word choice create an entertaining read by evoking tone, atmosphere, and the theme of the story.