How to write a script for a short film
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The screenplay is the driving force behind any film, whether it’s a short story or a full-length feature film. It sets the mood, gives characters depth, and keeps the action moving along. Without a script or screenplay, there is no movie. Of course, if the script is bad, there probably won’t be a movie anyway.
There are several types of scripts or writer’s tools commonly used in movie making including treatments, spec scripts, and pitch scripts, not to mention first, second, or third drafts, script doctoring or revisions, and outlines. Each version serves a purpose. For example, a spec script is unsolicited and written in hopes of landing a commissioned screenwriting job.
Additionally, all screenplay formatting follows a standard template. It may seem like a minor detail, but many script readers, producers, or studio heads won’t even look at a script if the font, type size, or margins are incorrect. The reason? These formats have been used for decades because it gives the reader an idea of how long the film is – one page is roughly one minute of screen time.
With the technical aspects of writing a script out of the way – now what? Even with a feature-length film, you’ll need to decide if this is going to be an original film idea or an adapted short film script. Obviously, if you intend to work with a published piece, you’ll need to secure rights to the work.
That isn’t required for a spec script, but you will need those rights if you intend to make your short film. Let’s concentrate on original short screenplays for now – coming up with an idea, creating a first, second, and third act, and choosing a theme and a genre.
Remember this is a short movie, though. According to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a short film runs less than 40 minutes – including the credits. That means you’ll need to set the scenes quickly, establish your character(s), and create the conflict. If written well, a powerful or hilarious or satisfying story doesn’t need to run for an hour or 90 minutes. Keep that in mind when cultivating your idea for a short film.
The 2019 Academy Award winner for the best live-action short film, The Neighbor’s Window, was able to do all of that in under two minutes. A messy floor with dropped food and toys, a pregnant, harried mother, and a tired father that just put two fussy kids to bed. Then new neighbors move in across the street.
With sparse dialogue, one setting, and a few exterior shots, director Marshall Curry was able to establish lust, envy, apathy, and tragedy between two couples over the next 15 minutes. The story didn’t need much more than that. Just because the limit is 40 minutes doesn’t mean you need to use every last second.
As you write, know when to hold back and when to let the scene linger. In fact, take the time to watch a few well-received short films of different genres, such as The Neighbor’s Window. Many are even available on YouTube. As you watch, learn how the filmmakers use just a few words to set a scene, or how they use a picture to paint a thousand words.
Then ask yourself – is my story compelling? There are no new plots under the sun – tragedy, the quest, comedy – have all been covered thousands of times over the past century. So how are you going to tell that rags to riches or love story in a way that pulls people in?
Put Pen to Paper
Make notes to yourself. Create a treatment for your film. Draw an Outline. Write, write, and write. At times you’ll hit a brick wall and other times you’ll fill pages. Find cheap or inexpensive screenwriting software (such as Celtx) to help with formatting. Just get anything and everything down on paper (or the monitor).
Less is more. If the main character is in a damaged mental state, show a quick flashback of how it happened or insert a well-written bit of expository dialogue. Get creative with the visual medium here. Perhaps a black and white flashback of an angry father shaking a six-year-old, or a yelling mother would get across the main character’s experience of childhood abuse.
In 10-15 seconds, the main character’s upbringing has been explained. Now you can concentrate on how he overcomes, or succumbs, to that environment. Is it a teacher that discovers a hidden talent? An older girl that takes him under her wing? Or does he catch the eye of a popular classmate?
Used to great effect by Quentin Tarantino in his full-length feature screenplays, jumbling the timeline can also save time or bring a new dimension to the same old story. With short scripts, you can be even more experimental. Many animated shorts have no dialogue at all. Instead, they tell their story through pictures.
Your short story doesn’t even need to tell a complete story. Sci-Fi entertainment outfit DUST is a master of short movies that end just as they pull you in. In some cases, short films have even been turned into feature-length films. The Damien Chazelle feature film Whiplash was actually first seen as an 18-minute proof of concept film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
It was so well received, Chazelle was able to raise financing for the rest of the film. It went on to win three Academy Awards: best editing, best sound mixing, and best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons. It was also nominated for best movie and best-adapted screenplay (even though it was adapted from the feature-length script he originally wrote).
Take Direction from an Expert
No matter if it’s a 90-minute movie or a 9-minute short, there has to be one constant: writing a Killer Script. With the Film Connection Screenwriting Workshop, you’ll be paired with a remote mentor focused on helping you write that Killer Script. From studying the greats to shopping the finished project, your mentor will be with you the entire time.
That’s one of the biggest advantages of applying to Film Connection: You won’t have to turn your life upside down to attend. Phone meetings twice a week at times that work for you mean no scrambling to get to the classroom, quitting a job to move across the country, or jockeying for the teacher’s attention.
It’s just you, your mentor, and your short film script. Just be prepared to work hard and show your work – this isn’t playtime for you nor your mentor. How much you learn from your mentor depends greatly on how much effort you put into it. You have an idea, you want to write a screenplay and make it into a movie, so look into how Film Connection can get you started. Apply today.