On the surface, short films can appear to be far easier to execute than features, but in reality they are one of the most challenging formats to get right. Although the logistical requirements associated with shooting a short film are certainly less daunting than a feature, the creative aspects of the format – specifically story writing – are often far more difficult.
Writing great stories is not easy, and even the most decorated screenwriters can struggle immensely during the writing process… But there is something about the feature film format that is far more intuitive to most filmmakers, and most people in general.
Feature films take us on a journey that is nearly always designed to show transformation in our protagonist, plain and simple. Even when filmmakers with no knowledge or education in screenwriting decide to write their first screenplay – it nearly always follows certain conventions. Specifically, there are often three acts in the story, even if the writer wasn’t consciously trying to write in a three act structure. Similarly, the protagonist nearly always goes on a journey that ends in either a transformation, or a tragic return to where they were at the beginning of the script, even when the writer isn’t trying to follow a traditional character arc.
The point is, storytelling in a feature-length format screenplay is very intuitive. It taps into the fundamental nature of how humans understand stories: Beginning, middle, & end. Novels written hundreds of years ago will follow many of the same conventions as three act screenplays today. The subject matter will of course be different, as will many other elements of the world and overall characterization – but the bare essentials of how long format stories are told haven’t changed in thousands of years. Long form storytelling is something that is ingrained in human nature.
Short films on the other hand, are a completely different animal.
Short-form content doesn’t have the luxury of time, and therefore ideas, story arcs, and character development often need to be abbreviated or omitted. For this reason, the very nature of short films is often counter-intuitive to how most of us think as storytellers, and can pose a lot of challenges during the writing process.
Personally speaking, I find it far easier to write a 110 page feature screenplay than a 5 page short, and I’m sure many of you can relate to this notion.
Over the years I’ve made numerous short films, many of which would have been stronger had I disregarded much of my approach to feature screenplay writing, and truly focused on the unique fundamentals of writing short films. It’s only been recently that I have come around to writing short form content in a much more thoughtful way, much of which is thanks to a few key principles that I have outlined below…
BREVITY IS BEST
There is a lot of discrepancy out there with regards to the ideal length of a short film, and in reality – there are no hard and fast rules. By definition, most festivals and film organizations will consider anything under 40 minutes to be a short film, but in my opinion, your short should never be that long. If you’ve written a 40 minute short film (in other words, roughly a 40 page screenplay), your story is probably in no-mans-land. With some rare exceptions, longer short films just don’t work. They are too long to have the witty charm of a 10 minute short, but too short to fully explore a feature idea.
In my opinion, most short films should be 15 minutes or under. Some 20 minute films may work, but they are usually an exception as well. Most short film story concepts can easily be told in 15 minutes or less, and some of the best ideas are often executed in as little as 3 or 4 minutes. The key is not to lock yourself into a rigid page count, telling yourself that your script has to be 15 pages. Rather, the goal should be to set a limit of approximately 15 pages, but then let your story dictate how long the actual script should be. If it needs 10 pages, great. If it needs 2 pages – even better.
The primary objective of course is to keep your story short and sweet. If you can get your idea across in 5 minutes, why take 10 minutes and bore the audience? Shorter will almost always make for a more interesting story. Not to mention, the shorter your film, the better your chances are of getting selected for a shorts program in most film festivals.
LESS IS MORE
Filmmakers can be just as over-ambitious in the scope of their short films as they are in the length. Much in the same way that your short film probably shouldn’t run 40 minutes, it also shouldn’t try to tackle too many ideas at once either. Most great shorts are extremely simple. They focus on one main idea, and it’s carefully explored over a few pages that are rich with subtext, strong dialogue or imagery, and powerful characters.
Like many filmmakers, I have made the mistake of trying to cram a feature-length idea into a short film, and I can tell you confidently that it simply doesn’t work. Feature films are designed to take the audience on a journey with your protagonist and track their evolution as a character all the way from the opening shot to the end of act 3. Short films will of course still have a beginning, middle, and end, but they don’t have enough time to delve into b-stories or c-stories that follow supporting characters. Many great short films play out more like a slice-of-life, or a single scene that focuses on a strong premise designed to give the audience some food for thought. If too many ideas are explored, the message of the story gets lost as there isn’t enough screen time dedicated to each idea.
Some of the best short films I have ever seen are also the simplest. Many of them take place in only one or two locations, have minimal characters, and focus on a universal theme that can be represented in a few short scenes. In short – less is more.
FIND YOUR PUNCHLINE
Years ago, a producer gave me a great piece of advice with regards to short films: Think of them as a joke. Not in the literal sense that your short needs to be funny, but in the metaphorical sense that it should have a setup and a punchline. Nothing more, nothing less.
Just as feature films benefit strongly from a three act structure, short films benefit from the one-two punch of a setup and punchline. Right of the bat, an idea is examined, characters are set up, the world is established, and a theme is stated. From there, and in the shortest amount of time possible, this setup leads us to a powerful ending that sticks with us far after the credits rolls. It could be a reveal, a twist, or just a change of fate for the character. The punchline doesn’t need to be HUGE, it just needs to be appropriate for the story, and designed to drive home to message or tone of the film, without becoming gimmicky.
Thinking of your short in this way will open up a lot of creative possibilities. As I’ve written about many other times on this blog, creating limitations for yourself as a filmmaker can be one of the most powerful ways to release your creative potential. By thinking of your short film in the simple terms of setup and punchline, you are one step closer to limiting, but also unleashing creative ideas that are bound to resonate with your audience.
As always, with posts like this I’ll point out that there are exceptions to every rule. Although in most cases a short film that tackles a strong theme in under 15 minutes and ends with a punchline is a recipe for success, sometimes a different approach may work even better. Depending on why you’re making the film in the first place, and who it’s for – you may be better off going against the grain and breaking these rules. Personally speaking, I broke every single one of these rules on nearly every short I’ve ever made… By the same token, I learned the hard way why not to do certain things, and ultimately came full circle in appreciating many of these creative conventions.
Of all the short films I’ve made, the one that seemed to resonate with people the most was the most simple of all. It was a short that I made for a filmmaking competition with virtually no crew and no budget. The idea was written in about 20 minutes, and it was shot an edited in an afternoon. This short (embedded below), had a better response than almost anything else I had done, likely because it was less ambitious and followed many of the guidelines outlined on this post.
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