Writing a Short Film

This article was published in a film magazine some years back. I'm including it here just because...

Blaise Pascal once wrote ‘I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.’ If there is a rule for writing a short film, this is it. A short film should not be considered as a truncated feature film. They are two independent formats. Just as a good novel is not an elongated short story. A feature film is allowed a certain percentage of fat. Scenes which don’t advance the story, or develop the main characters. No such sloppiness is allowed or tolerated in the short film. Every shot counts, every line of dialogue is important.

Scriptwriters often ask ‘how can I create a character with depth and importance, such that his or her death eight pages later will have some emotional impact?’ Such questions usually produce stifled yawns among writers of short film. Often, the whole story, including all the numerous subplots has to exist within eight pages. Similarly, a feature film must warm up its audience within 20 minutes of the title sequence. This translates to approximately twenty script pages. The short film doesn’t have this luxury. Often, the complete back-story and rough elements of characterisation must be revealed within two pages. This is a unique challenge – how to write one or two pages of a script, in such a way that the lead characters are introduced, and the back-story revealed. Economy is essential. Modern-day audiences are quite film-literate. They know when you try to indoctrinate them in a hurry, and they don’t like it.

That scene where one neighbour turns to the other and describes the prior years of the film has to go. Along with the telephone call which “explains everything”. Dump the “flashback” scene out with the bathwater while you’re at it. Very few films put a flashback to good purpose. Sometimes there is very little choice, particularly in short films. However, be very careful, and make sure that all other alternatives have been exhausted first. So, the neighbours can’t tell the story, the telephone can’t tell the story, we can’t delve into the characters past, and we certainly can’t use a voiceover to bring the audience up to date. Now what?

Don’t despair – film is a decidedly visual medium. People react to what they see, not what they hear. Also, even though the film is short, the traditional tension/release patterns must be present. The audience should care enough about your characters and what happens to them, for them to continue watching the film. The simplest way to do this is to remember to say NO to your characters. Nothing should be easy. Keep the audience interested. What is the basic plot, and how can it go wrong? Again and again. How the characters respond to various plot twists also tells us a lot about who they are. The three act structure dictates that the first act should establish the characters and the predicament, the second act should only make things worse, and the third act should see Ms. White heading for the hills with Mr. Right. There’s no point starting off with Ms. White and Mr. Right as the perfect couple. Not unless they’ll hate each other by the end of the first act. For added measure, his parents could despise her too. When she saves the schoolbus full of children from teetering over the cliff, she could decide Mr. Right ain’t so bad. However, don’t do that until the very end.

Staging is also an important consideration when writing short films. Obviously things like a fleet of space ships landing in downtown Seattle will strike terror not in the hearts of the audience, but in the mind of the Producer. Even trivial things such as a conversation in a car could involve an extra half-day of production, special camera equipment and a brave crew. Our Hero leaves his house to go to the pub. We have a shot of him coming through the doors, from inside the pub. Do we need to see him leaving his house? Or walking down the street? Frankly, no. It doesn’t advance our story, and costs more. Maybe we decide he’ll kick a dog as he walks down the street, thus showing the audience what a cad he is. Why not put the dog in the pub? The production team would prefer it, and the dog too.

Avoid too many locations in the script, but also avoid the temptation to have the whole film take place in someones kitchen, one bright morning. The locations you choose will have a direct impact on the budget of the film as well as the quality. Two people sitting on a hay cart discussing Sartre may be an effective scene, but both the sound crew and camera crew will become apoplectic when they see the script. There is a happy medium. The hay cart doesn’t have to be moving. Maybe they’re only leaning up against it. At any rate, write the story the best way you can, then begin to polish it, by eliminating excessive dialogue, unnecessary character traits and extraneous scenes.

An excellent example can be found in the Academy (and BAFTA) award winning short film entitled ``Omnibus’’. Here, the filmmakers take a relatively simple idea, and expand on it. They manage to create three or four main characters with foibles and considerable pathos, all within eight screen minutes. No small achievement.