Script writing tips for short film

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So you want to write a short film. Maybe you’ve done it before and you want to level up your craft, or maybe you’re brand new and you’re looking for ways to get started. Either way, I’ve got you covered. Writing a short film is totally different than other forms of writing, even writing a feature. Think about it; some of the best novelists never put out a short story collection, and vice versa. Some people think that writing a short film is easier since there’s a lower word count, but that’s not necessarily true. Read on to find out my top script writing tips for short film.

#1: Know the medium.

Before you dive into writing a short film, you should be aware of what a short film is. You should know how long is too long, and what will help you get the film made or entered into festivals. When we submitted our debut short film Biters & Bleeders into festivals, we found out that our 39 minute runtime, though it technically qualified us as a short film, automatically ruled out a lot of festivals. The feedback we received, across the board, told us that we should cut our film down to twelve minutes or less if we wanted to be shown at the majority of film festivals. So do your research, be clear on your own goals, know what the norms are, and then start planning.

#2: Tell the middle of the story.

No doubt you’re used to writing stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But when you’re writing a short film, you might not have time to fit all that information into 12 minutes or less. So what do you do? You tell the middle of the story.

Typically, act one of a story is used to set the stage for the story that is to come. It tells you who the characters are, what their world is like, and what their normal lives are. Then, an inciting event happens that turns their world upside down. In a short film, you probably want to start with that inciting incident. It’s possible that there is context that you absolutely can’t communicate without a solid beginning, so remember that this is a suggestion, not a hard and fast rule. 

Here’s an example. Imagine a couple leaving a party, bickering, and driving through the night. Then, their car breaks down on the side of the road and they realize they’re stranded. We don’t need to see the party, and we don’t need to see them fighting in the car. What we need to see is their car breaking down and the tension between them. That will tell your audience all they need to know about these two people.

You can also cut the ending, leaving the resolution of your story open ended. Audiences enjoy speculating about the films they see, wondering what happens next and how the story wraps up. Ending a short film on a cliffhanger is also a great way to keep audiences engaged if you’re hoping to use this film as proof of concept for a feature. Audiences understand more than we give them credit for, and since film is a visual medium, there are a lot of ways to communicate information without going over your time limit. Develop a complete story, and then film the middle of it. It may surprise you! 

Back to our couple broken down on the side of the road, maybe they are visited by a horrible creature lurking in the woods, and they have to try to work together to escape. It’s okay if we don’t know if they make it. It could end with us seeing a pair of headlights on the road, and then cut before we know if this is their savior or someone who is just going to drive right past. We don’t strictly need the ending, so it’s okay to cut it!

#3: Don’t forget about the budget.

Maybe you’re just looking up script writing tips for short film because you’re curious, and you have no intention of getting your film made. But my best guess is that if you’ve found yourself on my corner of the internet, it’s because you want to make a movie. So, as you’re getting ready to write your screenplay, let’s not forget about the production elements you’re writing into the script. The truth is, filmmaking costs a lot of money, so regardless of if you’re hoping to sell your screenplay to a production company or make it yourself, you need to keep the budget in mind. I’ve written a lot about how to make a micro budget movie before, so you can check that out here; it goes into detail about how to save money starting from the time the script gets written. To get you started, here’s a short, incomplete list of things in your script that cost money:

  • Actors. The more people in your film, the more expensive it is, even if you never pay them a cent.
  • Locations. Every location you include in your script costs money, especially if you choose locations that you’ll have to pay to use.
  • Camera movements. Time is money, and every time the camera moves it takes up a lot of time.
  • Specific props and costumes. If you don’t already own it, you’ll have to pay to get it. This could be cheap if it’s something you can make yourself or get at a thrift store, but the more elaborate you are, the more expensive it’s going to be.
  • Special effects. It’s way harder than you may think to make it look like someone is on fire, or has a fake wound, or has a bug bursting out of their mouth (ask me how I know.) The fewer special effects, the cheaper your movie will be.

#4: Make every sentence mean something.

You already know you don’t have a lot of time to tell this story, so one of my most important script writing tips for short film is that every. Single. Line. Has to mean something. Now, this is good advice in general, but in a short film? Absolutely vital. You have 12 minutes or less to tell your story, so make it all count. In general, every scene you write should do two things: it should tell you something about your character, and it should move the plot forward. Let’s revisit our example from before, the ill-fated couple with the broken down car.

Scene one: Two people are sitting in a broken down car on the side of the road. They’re bickering about something small, like whose family to spend Thanksgiving with. The husband (let’s call him John) tells his wife (let’s call her Katie) that they should table the discussion until roadside assistance gets here. Katie won’t drop it (typical Katie) and a frustrated John gets out of the car to wait in silence.

This scene lets us know where we are (side of the road) and who are characters are (Katie and John.) It tells us that all is not right in their marriage (why is this the topic of conversation now?) and tells us a little about each person (is John trying to keep the peace with his disagreeable wife, or is he just sick of arguing and knows if he catches her in a good mood he’ll win?)

Once you know what purposes your scene is serving, get down to a sentence level. They can’t just be bickering for the sake of bickering; they need to be telling us something about themselves. For example, “I just can’t handle another holiday with your mom, there are only so many times I can tell her we won’t be giving her grandchildren” tells us WAY more than “I just can’t handle another holiday with your mom, she drives me crazy.” Now, you’ll probably want to be less on the nose than I just was, but you get what I’m saying. Every single line should expand the world of your story.

These are my top four script writing tips for short film. Is there anything you’re still struggling with, or something you think I should add? Hit me up on my Instagram and let’s chat!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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