The Shocking Truth About Writing A Short Film (That You Need To Know)

When it comes to writing a short film, I’ve seen a lot. 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 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.

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The Shocking Truth About Writing A Short Film

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.

When writing a short film, it is useful to think of the film 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 the amazing job offer 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.

When writing 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.

Next time you start the process of writing a short film, allow the audience to do a bit of work to put everything together. Leave 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. And if you like this sort of stuff, you’ll love my guide on how to write treatments that sell.

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ARTICLE BY Jurgen Wolff

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, grab this screenwriting resource. 
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