Scripting a short film
Things you should and shouldn't do with a small-scale story.
A short film, like a short story, can’t waste any time. You need to give us your principal characters and establish their motivations immediately. There’s very little stage-setting before you get to the inciting incident and the ensuing complications.
The hero’s fundamental problem/challenge/obstacle needs to occur by the time you get to the 1/3rd mark. So, if your short is meant to be three minutes long, the big event needs to happen on page one. If it’s a 10-minute short, it happens around page three.
It’s not that you’re worried about your reader getting bored before then — if you can’t entertain us for three pages, there’s a problem — but rather that if you delay any longer, your story is going to feel lopsided: too much setup for what was accomplished.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t worry much about traditional structural expectations. Funny almost always works better than serious for a short, because there’s not enough time to create the narrative movement you expect in drama.
So think funny, or poignant — but only if French.
I’ve put the script for my 1998 short film God up in the Library section.2 It’s 30 scenes in 11 pages. A lot of story happens, quickly. But many successful shorts take the opposite tack: they’re essentially just one joke, fully exploited. Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Jagg Off is that kind of short, as are most of the SNL and Will Ferrell videos you’ve seen.
Character depth in a short film
With only ten minutes, you’re not going to be able to make Chinatown. Nor should you try.
Rather than cramming in extraneous character information, strive for economy. Is your protagonist a one-armed professional accordion player nervous about meeting his birth father? Fine. Show us that information in the very first scene.
If you can’t work in all those details, ask yourself what’s really important: that he plays accordion, that he has one arm, or that he’s nervous about meeting his biological dad.
You may find you have to omit or alter some aspects of the character for sake of getting the plot started. So be it.
Think of it like writing poetry: you may have really wanted line two to end with “orange,” but if you’re setting up for a rhyme, that’s just not going to work.
Good short films tend to be about a Character facing a Situation who takes an Action and has an Outcome.
Yes, that’s sort of a generic template, but my point is that most successful shorts don’t spend much of their time filling in the details about their characters. What you see is what you get. So make sure those first details we see about the characters are enough to sustain our interest for ten minutes.
Don’t make the feature version of your short
This seems like terrible advice. After all, it’s easy to think of several acclaimed filmmakers who expanded upon their short films, including Neill Blomkamp and George Lucas.
Great shorts are great and short. The perfect haiku isn’t improved by rewriting it as a sonnet.
You will burn out on the idea. Having already made the short, do you want to spend several more years making it again?
Show what else you can do. A career isn’t one movie, or one idea. Even if you make the movie and it turns out great, you’ve still only told one story so far in your career.
Safety is paralysis. It’s less intimidating to expand on something familiar. But you need to push against your boundaries.
Your first feature project should ideally be in the same class or genre as your acclaimed short, but not a retread. If you made a charming short about blind leprechauns, write a feature about kleptomaniac crows. Let the connection between projects be your ambition and sensibility, not a single storyline.
Go was originally written to be a short film — but we never shot it. Had the short version been made, I can’t imagine going back to write the full thing. I would have been too hamstrung by my original choices, and the scenes that had already been shot.
Worse, I wouldn’t have felt the same things the second time through. You don’t get your first kiss twice.
That said, it probably wouldn’t have stood out in a script competition.
The short is a bonus feature on The Nines DVD.
Silent evidence: You’re only seeing the movies that got made and released, not the ones that didn’t.
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