Writing and making a short film?

Writing and making a short film? Less is more (unless it’s too much less)
By Screenwriter Jurgen Wolff

I’ve seen a lot of short films over the years. Frequently I’ve been impressed by the visuals, the level of the acting, sometimes the innovative use of a mix of media. Can you guess what most often is the weakest link?

It’s the script. Or sometimes the lack of one.

In one case, the filmmaker has decided that a short film can’t really tell a story, it can only create a mood. Then we suffer through long, long shots of the sun going down, the blinds casting interesting shadows on the wooden floor, and the smoke spiraling into the air as the protagonist smokes his French cigarette.

Don’t make us suffer. We want a story. Even when we watch a 30-second commercial, we want a story. If the moody shots serve the story, then use them (in moderation), but they’re not a substitute for a plot.

At the other end of the spectrum are short films that try to be feature films, 90 minutes of story struggling to fit into ten or twenty minutes. The result is that we, the audience, are confused or things go by so fast that we don’t have a chance to engage emotionally with the characters and what’s happening to them.

Feature films and novels often are about the transformation of the protagonist in some way, for instance from selfish to caring about other people, or from fearful to bold. Those are big changes and a challenge to make credible even with 90 to 120 minutes at your disposal. You can’t cover them adequately in ten.

It’s useful to think of a short film as being like a short story. It can capture a moment in time, a phase of a transformation. It can hint at what went before or what goes after, but not reveal those at length.

For instance, let’s say that in a feature film we were doing the story of a man who is totally absorbed in work and neglects his family but assumes they’re fine and happy.

He loses his job and can’t find another one.

Now that he’s spending so much time at home, he realizes two things–his kids don’t actually like him very much and things are really screwed up–his wife is sleeping with the neighbor, his daughter is cutting herself, and his son is selling drugs.

Maybe at first he lashes out at them, blaming everything on them, but then something happens that wakes him up to the fact that he’s responsible for a lot of this (I don’t know what wakes him up, but let’s assume we’ll come up with something brilliant).

He starts working hard on changing, winning his kids over, learning how to be humble…

Then he gets an amazing job offer–one he’s always wanted–but it would mean going back to his rat-race lifestyle.

If it’s an American film he takes the job but on his first day, as he puts a picture of his family on his desk, he realizes he’s made a mistake. He tells the powerful head of the company that he can’t take the job because he’s got more important things to do. He races to his daughter’s school and arrives just in time for her ballet performance.

If it’s a European film (and especially if it’s a European film about Americans) he takes the job, convincing himself that he can handle both.  When he comes home from his first day at his new job the house is empty. Maybe they burned it down before they left.

In a short film you could show one part, but imply a lot of the other things. Here are three ways you could treat the same story:

  • You could start with his workaholic lifestyle, then show him getting fired and, at the end, show his horrible growing realization that his family doesn’t love him.
  • You could start the story where he’s trying hard to change (his former self is implied), but then the amazing job offer comes. Maybe you give a hint as to what he’ll do but you don’t show it or the consequences.
  • You could start at the end–the smoking ruin of the house. As he sifts through the ashes there are flashbacks to moments that, when you put them together, let you understand what happened.

A really good short film makes the audience do a bit of work to put everything together and leaves them with something to think about.

If you’re a writer, instead of trying to make a short film something that it’s not, embrace its qualities and make them work for you instead of against you.

Here’s an opportunity if you want to write a short film: on Sunday, April 15, I’m hosting an online Massive Action Day (I call them MADs). Why not use the MAD to write your short film? If you have questions along the way, I’ll be online to help. Want to check how a title goes over or test a few lines of dialogue? Put it in our chat window and our friendly group will give you instant feedback. It’s fun, supportive, and I give away prizes every hour.

I’ve given Jason 10 free passes to give to his Filmmaking Stuff fans.  If you don’t manage to wangle one of those, you can still join us for the very reasonable fee of $23.25—or a lot less if you buy a subscription of ten. All the information is here: http://massiveactionday.com/new-annual-mad-sign-up-page/


Short Film Ideas


  1. AKHILESH says

    Hello sir ,
    I am a mass comm student from India & i am planning to make a documentary on some social issue.
    as its my first film i dont have any experience or ideas on how to execute the complete project.could you please help me out??

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