For the most part, good writing is good writing, and the skills you’re developing to write feature scripts will also apply when you write shorts: a three-act structure (but for shorts, simply think setup, conflict, and resolution); a universal theme; a clear dilemma and stakes; and an active protagonist.
But there are challenges specific to writing a great short film that can be overcome by understanding what makes shorts — and the audience for shorts — unique.
Create a Dynamic Opening Scene
If asked for just one piece of advice for creating a successful short film, I’d have to go with the old, “the shorter, the better” mantra. Because it really is true — most short films can be improved by making them a little shorter.
But the one place where you can benefit from not trying to build in too much information is your opening scene. Even though you have a limited amount of time to tell your story, you don’t need to front-load your film with all of your setup at once.
Use your opening to establish tone and introduce your characters in a fascinating way, but don’t weigh it down with backstory and exposition. Entice your audience to want to learn more.
If the opening can double as a “before” shot of your protagonist’s life (i.e. before the transformative event of your story), so much the better, but be sure even the most mundane life is portrayed in a curiosity-inducing way.
Layer Your Storytelling
In a short film, you’ll have very few scenes to work with to tell your story, so you’ll want to build multiple layers of meaning into each scene to help drive your narrative home.
As you develop your script, look for the themes, motifs, and symbols that naturally crop up, and embellish and repeat those that enhance your story. Don’t underestimate your audience’s intuition and their desire to use their own powers of deduction to help piece together your tale. A story told through subtext, in addition to text, is often a more satisfying experience for the viewer.
Put Your Locations & Actions to Work
Think about where you set each scene and what actions can take place in the scene that will further your story without utilizing dialogue and exposition.
If you have a scene between a mother and her son and they are discussing his poor grades, you could set that scene at their kitchen table and it would be a fine scene and move your plot along.
But what if you give the mother an action, say, breaking down a chicken with a cleaver for their dinner, as they discuss his poor grades? The scene immediately has a different tone and you can guess, without any dialogue, that there will be mounting tension in this scene.
Or if you set the scene at a high school swimming pool and the mother and son are sitting in the bleachers, he’s in a swimsuit, and they discuss his grades? The setting now gives the impression that there is a reason for the grades, and one the mother might even be understanding about.
The actions and settings of a scene can do a lot of the basic storytelling for you and leave your dialogue free to go deeper into your characters and their relationships. If every scene is doing as much work as possible to tell a unified story, you will be able to pack a very rich world into a short film.
Use Archetypes & Revealing Details
With a short, you need to be extra creative about your story’s setup since you won’t have the luxury of burning multiple scenes to establish the dilemma and stakes. You’ll need to find shortcuts that work for your specific scripts that can set up your story world, characters, and the crux of your tale quickly and efficiently.
I’ve found that archetypes and telling details have been some of my best tools for a quick setup.
I often build secondary characters off of a recognizable archetype that works for the plot of my story. I’ll then add in details unique to this character to avoid creating a stereotype. The Bad Boy. The Domineering Mother. The Kindly Boss. The Cool Chick. The Mystic. I’ve created secondary characters that started with all of these types and then made them my own.
The advantage of starting with a recognizable type, especially for secondary characters, is your setup work is done in no time. Show an audience a Bad Boy doing Bad Boy things and they’ll quickly create a set of expectations for that character that you can then confirm or counter later in your story. But either way, your Bad Boy is off and running.
Telling details also work to shortcut a lot of your storytelling and many of these details will be uncovered as you write drafts of your script.
Does a character ride a bike to work? If so, does she wear a skirt and blouse and have a high-end ride heading to her monied job? Or does she rock a pinup-girl look and ride a retro bike that has streamers coming off the handlebars? In one shot of a woman riding a bike, you can introduce tone, character, and setting, and give your viewer information quickly to save your precious runtime minutes for the specifics of your story.
Pace Your Story Well
A lot of film pacing is done in the edit, but the more you do to pace your script well from the beginning, the better chance you’ll have of producing a well paced film in the end.
Look closely at the heads and tails of all of your scenes and be sure you are beginning at the best moment (and that’s very often a few beats later than you might think) and ending on a compelling line of dialogue, image, or action that piques your viewer’s curiosity about what will happen next.
In addition to compressing runtimes, short films also seem to compress an audience’s patience. Everyone from film festival programmers to online viewers to even in-person audiences (I’ve seen people walk out of short film programs!) can decide they are bored and would rather be doing something else.
To deal with this inevitable short attention span, I look to reveal new plot, character, or relationship information — information that shifts the trajectory of the story — every couple of pages in the script, which translates to every couple of minutes in the film.
Stick the Landing
Ahhh, the ending.
Once in a while I’ll meet someone who tells me endings are easy. I don’t like those people. Because I sweat endings. I don’t always stick the landing but I sure as hell always try.
A considerable amount of your film will be judged on how you choose to end your story — on what tone, image, bit of dialogue, and, most importantly, how you wrap up the very specific story you set out to tell.
I’m not one who likes every element of a story wrapped up neatly in a bow, so I’m certainly not advocating that, but there is a central question that you posed at the beginning of your story — Does she get the job? Does he find his mojo? Can she be forgiven? Will he be forever lonely? — that if you answer (to some extent) by the end, you’ll have the best shot of leaving your audience feeling satisfied with your film.
This doesn’t mean whether you have a joyous ending or a bleak one — that’s for you to decide based on your story. I love “be careful what you wish for” stories, which always end with the protagonist getting what they want, but not in a way they would have wanted. So while these are often downer endings, they can also be very satisfying tales because they answer the question (quite deliciously!) that was posed at the beginning of the story.
In previous Script articles, I covered “Selecting Your First Project to Direct,” “Script Development for the Beginner Writer-Director,” and “Hosting a Table Read for Your Script.” I recommend these pieces as companions to this article to ensure you’re not just writing a great script, but you’re writing a great script that can be produced. Because while short scripts can be used as writing samples, they are much more powerful if you produce them and have an actual finished film to show off your screenwriting skills.
Start by watching a ton of shorts to learn what’s unique about this form. Get writing, and put in the time to write many, many drafts.
Writing and producing a short film is an extraordinary process. Even though you’ll have days where you’re pulling out your hair wondering why the heck you’re doing it, in the end, creating your own film is truly a rewarding and unique experience like no other. So get writing. And have fun!