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3 Of The Most Critical Elements For The Success Of Any Short Film

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.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

For more articles like this, filmmaking tips, camera reviews, and much more – be sure to bookmark NoamKroll.com!

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

22 Comments

  • Rory Tregaskis
    June 5, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Your short is so simple and so good.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 1:17 am

      Apprecaite it very much, Rory.

      Reply
  • Pim
    February 18, 2019 at 10:38 am

    Great short man. Well done.

    Reply
  • Psalmz41
    September 13, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks so much… this has given me a lot knowledge in producing short films… with the little production gadgets that i have i know that by applying all these things you said, I will come out with something nice until i gather the rest of the production gadgets. thank you so much.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 14, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      No problem! Thanks for the note.

      Reply
  • FLM215 – Week 4 – Site Title
    October 14, 2017 at 6:18 am

    […] Today I will be sharing what I learned from Noam’s post, titled 3 Of The Most Critical Elements For The Success Of Any Short Film (http://noamkroll.com/3-of-the-most-critical-elements-to-the-success-of-any-short-film/) […]

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  • […] Kroll’s blog sight found here. This blog is in response to his blog post regarding the most crucial elements in writing to ensure a successful short […]

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  • […] Kroll, N. (2016). 3 Of The Most Critical Elements For The Success Of Any Short Film | Noam Kroll. Retrieved from http://noamkroll.com/3-of-the-most-critical-elements-to-the-success-of-any-short-film/ […]

    Reply
  • Benjamin Christian
    November 22, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Hi Noam, great short by his simplicity and esthetics. That said, i have some few questions:

    Which camera have you used ? and wich are the lenses ?
    And, how did you recorded the sound ?

    Thanks a lot, you’re a good professor.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 25, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks Benjamin! I shot this on a Canon C100 with the Canon 24-105 Zoom lens. The sound was recorded with two wireless lav mics (one on each actor), which were run into a Zoom H6.

      Reply
  • Mutiganda
    August 6, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    This is exactly what I was looking for, to mature in my craft of storytelling! Thanks Noam (I’m from Rwanda).

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 9, 2016 at 4:12 pm

      Great to hear. Thanks so much for the feedback.

      Reply
  • Adam
    August 4, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Very wise words Noan, and enjoyed the short film as well (especially considering how it was made)
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 9, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks so much Adam. Glad you liked it!

      Reply
  • Tom
    July 22, 2016 at 2:48 am

    Amazing. Your short really was everything a short should be. It totally pulled me in, and then that ending was just perfect. I had to sit back and think, and I think that’s another important aspect of crafting the story. Not just spoon feeding everything to the viewer. Great job!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 22, 2016 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks so much Tom! Appreciate the kind words, and really glad you enjoyed it. Hope to see you around the site again some time.

      Reply
  • Vanessa
    July 15, 2016 at 2:29 am

    Wow, your short looked really beautiful!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 15, 2016 at 6:26 am

      Thanks so much! Appreciate the feedback.

      Reply
  • Kim
    July 7, 2016 at 10:34 am

    It is great reading your writings Noam.

    I take a lot of video when testing gimbals and sometimes it would be nice to have some story on them. Making a story is a bit like the french language for me, I understand it some how, but actually to use it is a different story.

    I guess it comes with practice like most of the things. Your writing gave me an wake-up to try more, to learn to think like a cinematographer, the french language remains a different story 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 7, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying them Kim! A lot of times with camera movement, it’s easy to over-do things as dolly/gimbal shots look so great and can be hard to resist. But as you’ve pointed out, focusing on story and the meaning behind your images can be more challenging (and rewarding), and often leads to restraint when implementing certain types of camera moves. Thanks for the note!

      Reply
  • Jay
    July 5, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    Thanks for the insight Noam!!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 5, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      Anytime Jay! Thanks for the note.

      Reply
    • cath
      December 30, 2017 at 6:33 am

      i love the surprise ending – the music leads in a direction of questioning, fear and danger – but the danger is not for the girl… kind of sad.

      Reply
      • Noam Kroll
        January 7, 2018 at 11:20 pm

        Thanks so much – really happy you enjoyed it!

        Reply

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