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Short Films: Sharpen Your Script Before Page One

Short Films: Sharpen Your Script Before Page One

Producing

You just got a great concept for a short film. It moves you. It excites you. It scares you because it’s too good not to make, and now that responsibility rests on your shoulders.

Take a deep breath. Right now it’s just a concept and any concept can be molded into a form you can control. But before you write page one, there are a few things you need to consider. After all, you want to make this film, not just write it.

Chalk Talk BTS 1

The author (second from left) on the set of short “Chalk Talk”

1. Keep it Simple, Stupid: Write a Short—not a Feature

Part of the magic of short films is how simple they can be. Where feature films often demand multiple plot lines, layered conflict, and stellar effects, the best short films are usually focused on one thing. Most beginning moviemakers want their first short film to be a visual and narrative epic. Most of the time, their scripts are too complicated for short format filmmaking, with half the runtime spent on exposition and the other half rushing through a muddled narrative.

If you have an ambitious concept, try showcasing that concept in one single event. Your big idea can be conveyed easily and effectively if it’s presented as an underlying theme within a narrow, focused story. For example, if your concept exists in a Star Wars-scale universe, you can build that universe—but allow your short to be about the day a young Padawan gets her first lightsaber. Let your large-scale universe shine through in the details of a simple story. The spirit of your concept will be palpable, digestible and better-appreciated.

A feature can pivot on a first kiss, a car crash, or a tricky bow tie, but cannot consist solely of one element. This is where shorts shine: Their entire identity (look, sound, story) can be meticulously planned to exclusively highlight one idea. Be proud of your short for this reason, as you can say much more with less.

2. The Producer’s POV: Write with Your Resources in Mind

Thinking as a producer even before page one will save you and your team a lot of grief in the long run. Keep this section in the back of your mind while writing and your producers will thank you for it. They may even buy you a beer.

No one wants to sacrifice creative vision to logistical constraints, and you shouldn’t do so before you even put pen to paper. It is, however, a good idea to figure out what you have at your disposal so you have the option of employing those resources in a smart and organic way. If you don’t have much money and don’t want to raise or borrow any, then planning the story around your immediate resources is essential.

Chalk Talk BTS 2

If that concept of yours is a VFX epic in space, you can pull that off, but the budget does become a major factor. If you only want to raise $5,000, try writing a draft of said space epic with one or two constructed locations, only a few uncomplicated effects shots, and a story simple enough to accommodate a two-day shooting schedule. With those limitations in mind you now have a great framework for how to write your film. It’s better, and easier, to write a screenplay that accommodates a set budget than stretching a finite budget around a more complicated idea. The latter would make your film look cheap and the corners you’ve cut will surely show.

Manage your ambitions. Shoot for the moon but know your limitations. If you know you can’t pull off a pivotal story element, it’s way easier to do a re-write than to try to shoot or cut around it. So, if a horse backflips off an exploding oil tanker in your script, ask yourself two things.

One: Is it worth it in the grand scheme of the film? This isn’t about laziness. If half your budget is going toward making that horse backflip, it might be better to scrap that idea and re-allocate that money toward production design or hiring a big name actor.

Two: Is it integral to your vision? Will you still have a film if that horse doesn’t backflip? If so, scrap it. This is a short film. Every line, every detail, every word should be vital. You have too much to say and too little time.

Don’t let any of this scare you away from pursuing your concept. You may not know what’s achievable or what resources you’ll need until your story becomes clearer. Just let your inner producer peek out from time to time during the writing process.

3. Choosing a Runtime: Why Short is Never Short Enough.

Setting a target runtime before you start writing can give you a heads-up on what your viewership will ultimately be. You are about to invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to make this thing. You owe it to yourself to know going into it what you can expect in returns.

So, how do you discern that just from a runtime? Simple. Whether you choose to showcase your film through festivals, the Internet, or just as a calling card, the shorter your film is the more likely it will be seen. If you don’t think you can tell your story in fewer than 30 minutes, you should strongly consider writing a feature instead. There’s very little market for short films (and little chance of a financial return) compared to features, and all you need to quality as a feature is a 60-minute runtime.

Chalk Talk Forsyth Screening

“Chalk Talk” screened at five festivals. Photograph by Wyatt Ramsay

Festivals: Festivals have set time-blocks designated for their short films, and every festival wants to show as many films as possible. Even if your 30-minute film is something they absolutely love, I guarantee they’ve also been sent two 15-minute films they love just as much. Similarly, for every 15-minute film they receive, they also will get three five-minute films that’ll knock their socks off. It’s really easy for any festival to say no to a 30-minute long masterpiece, but harder to resist a great two-minute long short.

The Internet: Agents, managers and production companies are looking for short filmmakers that can draw in a large viewership online. A film’s running length can greatly increase your odds of being noticed. If this is something you’re considering, ask yourself this: What gets you to press play on YouTube? A snappy title, perhaps, but runtime is often a huge factor. How many times have you skipped over a video because it was 10 minutes long? Would you have pressed play if it were five?

A Calling Card: Industry professionals have a shorter attention span than most three-year-olds when it comes to watching your work. Even if that person knows and loves you, they may choose not to watch your film because they don’t have 10 minutes. But they might just have five.

While you’re writing your film, keep a runtime and an end goal in mind. Now is the time to easily adjust your concept to fit into a shorter format. Once your script is locked (and, even more so, when you’re done filming) it becomes much harder.

4. Short Film Sentience: Allow Your Story to Live

Now for a bit of contrary advice: Listen when your story says something. If it’s screaming to go one way, don’t force it down another. It knows what it wants to be better than you do. This may include letting it turn into a different kind of story entirely.

So, what’s your story telling you? Are you even sure it wants to be a short film at all? I once wrote a screenplay that turned into a short story (now it’s a poem). Not every idea is best suited for film. If all you have is a single kernel of a concept, treat it as a short film and keep your ears open for later compelling instruction. While you craft the film’s universe, characters and conflicts, it should become clear if your story likes the home you’ve made for it or if it needs a larger or smaller habitat.

Chalk Talk Still 3

Are you ready? Some writers have every single moment of their screenplay beaten out before they write page one. Others go in blind; writing one word at a time, trusting the story to reveal itself. I personally look for middle ground, having a rough idea of where I want to go and how to get there beforehand, but leaving enough room for surprises along the way. Figuring out what works best for you really comes down to trial and error.

The process of making a short film is a fun and rewarding adventure that can be made even more so by thinking ahead. With that in mind, if you’re ready, go for it. Write page one. MM

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