7 Rules for Writing Short Films

A short film script can be a great calling card for a writer. Short films aren’t a lesser form of cinematic storytelling. In fact writing them requires the exact same skills as writing a feature length script – though on a smaller scale. Although TV broadcast opportunities may be limited, there are more and more outlets for these opportunities. I recently read on IndieWire: “Shorts used to be this artsy thing. But now there really is this explosion in filmmaking. With all this new technology, shorts films have a lot more interest among regular people, because so many people are making them and putting them on the web. Suddenly, we’re not explaining short films to people. Everybody’s seen one.”

Many of the best writers and directors started out with shorts. Do you know that Sacha Gervasi, the writer of “The Terminal”, found his U.S agent, and then a lucrative writing gig with Dreamworks based on the strength of an extraordinary short film he wrote? It’s a rarity but it happens. In any case, it’s an excellent way to develop your craft and flex your writing muscles and it is much less daunting than penning a first feature if you haven’t much writing experience.

There are 7 rules you should remember when writing a short film:

1.   THE SHORTER THE BETTER

A short film can be anything from fifteen seconds to forty five minutes in length. Make your short film script as short as possible because the shorter the short, the less costly it will be to produce. Of course, digital technology frees up filmmakers, yet time still costs money, so does feeding a hungry crew, and if you shoot too fast your short film might end up looking amateurish. It has to be cheap but shouldn’t LOOK cheap! Plus, if you want to get your short into a festival, then keep it to no more than ten minutes, which is usually 7-8 pages maximum. Why? Because if your short film is longer, it will eat up a longer slot and festivals love to play as many shorts as possible! You can also create real emotion in just a few minutes.

Look at Sebastian’s Voodoo. It’s a 4 minute animated short about a Voodoo doll who must pierce his own heart to save his friend from being impaled and it is absolutely heartbreaking.

2.   KEEP THE PRACTICALITIES OF WRITING IN MIND

The great thing about shorts is that they can be anything since you don!’ have studio execs on your tail. However, don’t discard the practicalities of writing your script. I have read scripts with pages of chase-action scenes and car crashes, and many writers seem not to realize how time consuming it would be to actually shoot. In fact, see the writing of a short as an opportunity to become more aware of what each line you put down on paper implies and costs. Visions of white horses galloping in the moonlight certainly look amazing in your mind but are you sure you’re good friends with a wrangler and/or a CGI specialist? If you only have access to modest resources, think small.

Apricot  is a good example of short film that could have been done on a low budget (it shows such impeccable production value I doubt it was actually done on the cheap) because it deals with two people sitting at a table at a cafe yet manages to show a wide range of emotion. Along the same lines, the Asian short film Just a Love Story   takes place almost entirely in an elevator. Write for locations that are interesting yet practical, think of access and control, and avoid remote locations requiring driving for miles.

3.   MAKE IT VISUAL

“Film is a visual medium”. “Show, don’t tell.” Those are the golden rules of screenwriting the gurus keep telling us. Yet it’s astonishing to see how talky most scripts are. Film is about telling stories in pictures, which is the most economical way of telling a story – and when you make a short film, economy is everything. Create visual backstories for your characters. Externalize through visual images their temperament, their profession, their status, etc.

In the Lunch Date  the posh lady polishes her fork before using it. What does it tell you about her? Note how there is no dialogue in this short film, a short film that went on to win an Academy Award for best live action short film.

4.   FIND SINGLE MOMENTS

The best short films are often a single moment that is played out, but one that has a story at its heart. What do I mean by story? I mean a conflict that has to be resolved, where there’s a dilemma at stake and a choice that the protagonist has to make. Strive to add a deadline, or ticking clock. It is not necessary but it will add some tension to your short film. The short On Time is a good example of a short film that meets all these conditions. It tells the story of a heart-broken young man can peek into the future and must act on it on the spot.

5.   TELL A STORY

You should always try to tell a compelling story. Beware of ideas that are concept-driven or just aim at breaking all the rules for the sake of breaking rules. Short films are a great opportunity to push the boundaries of what cinematic storytelling can do, yet they must still engage your audience emotionally. As a rule of thumb, unless it is extremely brief a short film should have a hero with a goal and an obstacle/antagonist in the way. Watch I love Sarah Jane. It shows a bunch of teenagers in a ghost town where adults have turned into zombies, yet at the core it is a love story about a young boy who can’t reach through to the older girl he loves.

6.   ENGAGE THE READER

Since you have so little time to make an impression the impact of page one is crucial, just as it is crucial to hook the reader in the first 10 pages of a feature length script. What is the world of the film? Do we root for the main character? Does the world and story of the film feel authentic? The ending is also essential as it’s rare to truly feel moved at the end of a short, so work towards a meaningful, satisfying ending.

7.   BEWARE OF CLICHES

There are many clichés in short films, and much navel gazing. How come everybody feels the need to write about hit men for hire, heists, people seeing themselves die, children representing innocence, incestuous relationships, etc? Avoid stereotypes unless you have a fresh slant on them. That’s what The Descendent does. In this short film a couple of bewildered hit men actually have to kill a seemingly cute little boy and one of them gets cold feet until he realizes that the child is a supernatural being who terrifies his mother. Write what you’re familiar with and what resonates with you rather than writing something you borrowed from other films. Don’t shy away from small stories, short formats are the perfect vehicle for them and you won’t often get the opportunity to tell small stories as a professional writer.

Last but not least, watch as many short films as possible. There is no replacement for knowing what is out there, and knowing what you as an audience (as well as a writer) think and feel about it.

Raindance Film Festival 2014 – Discover the Fresh Talent Shaping the Future

24 Sept – 5 Oct 2014, Piccadilly Circus, Central London

Raindance Film Festival 2014

Stéphanie Joalland

About Stéphanie Joalland

Stéphanie Joalland is a native of France, but writes and consults globally in both English and French, from Toronto, Los Angeles or London. She combines European flair with UCLA Screenwriting education to provide the most useful script doctoring, coverage and consultation you’ll find for your screenplay – whether FIRST or FINAL draft.

Stéphanie began as a reader for the French studios TF1 International and Canal Plus, evaluating hundreds of English language scripts from all over the world allowing her to gain a deep understanding of storytelling. She then worked as a story editor, where she developed dozens of international animated European and North-America co-productions, with an Emmy-nomination for Pet Aliens. In Paris she created an animated TV show Valerian and Laureline for Luc Besson (Europa Corp) while her genre feature scripts were optioned by the French studios Pathé and Gaumont. In 2008, one of her spec screenplays was showcased at the prestigious IFP “Emerging Narrative” in NYC during Independent Film Week.

Stephanie has been hired as writer and script doctor on numerous English-language feature films such as the multi-award winning Irish comedy Cup Cake, and the thriller Deadline (starring Brittany Murphy and Thora Birch). She has a London UK-based production company, Frenzy Films, to produce and direct her own screenplays. You can contact Stephanie at: info@raindancecanada.com

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44 Responses to 7 Rules for Writing Short Films

  1. Danish Renzu December 6, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    great post. thank u

  2. Debatma Mandal December 22, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    Hi everyone :)
    This is my new zero budget independent film, 'room for rent'. please do watch it n if u like it, do share. cheers! :D http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dLJxLMz8W4

  3. Amit Thapliyal December 22, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    quite informative.

  4. JB Bruno December 26, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Good article. One of the things I always tell people who come to me to shoot a short is that it's not part of a bigger story – it has to BE the story. This is especially a fault of people who want to raise money for a feature by shooting a compressed version of the story, or, worse, what amounts to just a scene. Not only does it almost never work to see the feature, but usually leaves the audience wanting more.

  5. Aaron Burrows December 27, 2012 at 12:36 am #

    Great tips/rules!

  6. Jonathan Fulton December 27, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    You're missing the link to The Descendant in #7. Great article!

  7. Crystal Endless December 28, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    Thank you for the article, Stephanie! I was just curious about the artist of the accompanying photo. Do you know whose work it is? I love it!

  8. Ola Baca January 4, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    a really good and useful article, especially for beginners movie makers. thank you!

  9. Konstantin Mikhalchuk January 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    thanks

  10. Ryazes Paudel April 19, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    Its grt 4 begainners lyks meee

  11. Faustin Niyigena May 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    :D – THANKS.

  12. Ahmad Raza Mian May 15, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    :-)

  13. Somadasa Abeywickrama May 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Thanks for adding this us-full Article , which helps to.
    the shot film makers.

  14. Arsh JaiKrishan June 1, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Wonderful advice, Thanks Regards,

    https://www.facebook.com/ArshJaiKrishanPicturez

  15. Malav Karia July 6, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    Stephen,
    I am a poet. I would like to publish my poems. I found that Lithasa is also doing the poem publishing. I found about lithasa in an article and also seen a guy talking about lithasa in a big way. They are good. they have defined a new publishing format and the design is so good. But have guys know about it? let me know. I am thinking to publish my poems and atleast earn what I deserve rather giving them to some publisher who don't even care about me.
    This is their website. http://www.lithasa.com

  16. Urenna Amadi July 28, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    Nice one thanks

  17. Anonymous October 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    U r short movie is very good

  18. Jamalo Chelsea November 2, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    I'm Independent filmmaker,this article helped me BIG time now i know what to do thanks.

  19. Vignendra Varma Rathod December 15, 2013 at 5:06 am #

    That was amazing..! hey guys, i'm a student and i don't know anythng about film making and short films..but recently me and my friend were thinkng to write a script for a short film taking our own real life stories to reel life story.. :)

  20. Rodrig Andrisan February 17, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    Hi, I need a little support for my work of passion. I'm promoting 7 short films I got on You-tube, submitted to Reed Film Competition 2014, in London, UK. If you are so kind to help, I will much
    appreciate. So, please, share, comment & like (on You-tube the most IMPORTANT!!! – also on Facebook it's nice) (IF YOU GIVE ME A LIKE ONLY ON YOUR WALL ON FACEBOOK, DOES NOT HELP ANYTHING) You can give a LIKE on You-tube without having an account. If you don't have an You-tube account, you can make one for free. That's to be able to make a comment. Ask your friends, your relatives, your neighbours, your enemies, your worse enemies, those in the CIA, those at FBI, The White House, The President, everybody, tell them that we'll share the PRIZE(S)!!! These are all my films in the Reed Film Competition 2014, seven, lucky number(the first 2 are the best and the most important):
    http://youtu.be/v2xQk-O4DEw
    http://youtu.be/W7Qgg2o-bLw
    http://youtu.be/xrulJlX-9PA
    http://youtu.be/0XxCLZUPkdA
    http://youtu.be/rvmGSV7Uydk
    http://youtu.be/pInqRI2yb1c
    http://youtu.be/YTB6cULGENk
    IF YOU DON'T LIKE OR YOU FIND THEM BORING, PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO WRITE
    ME BACK, DON'T BE SHY, TELL ME WHY/WHAT YOU DON'T LIKE.

  21. Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel February 17, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Liked them all, except one because the James Bond one isn't available :)

  22. Iam Tillu March 1, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    hi, i am Tillu from india. i have a basic question to ask you all, is group name or team name is require to make a feature length film.
    your suggestion and response are appreciated.
    Thank you in advance.

  23. Tom Glover March 27, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    Hi everyone,
    this is a short that I made in 2006, i've only recently put it online. Please watch and If you like it please share. All the best
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5HmKXLuSiU

  24. Robert Bengtsson March 28, 2014 at 7:28 am #

    Hi, here's a trailer for a tv-drama that we made, on a zero budget.
    The trailer was made as a short film, since we didn't have the funding to make a full pilot episode. Feel free to have a look, and comment if you like it.

    https://vimeo.com/84563921

  25. Thérèse Harvey June 26, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    About the Lunch Date- uhm, no dialogue? You mean except for the talking that occurs? Also, while I actually loved this short, all I could think about how she polishes her fork is the fact that she first wipes the table with the same napkin. Ew. Incredible ending though!

  26. Min Thu July 20, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    great……….so helpful for me…thanks

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 7 Rules for Writing Short Films | FilmmakerIQ.com - December 22, 2012

    [...] You really can’t make money or get distribution on one or two shorts. That’s not to say that they isn’t any potential at all in the making of short films. They are an important learning experience and calling card, especially now that anybody can screen shorts via the Internet. So make shorts – and make sure you share them! Here are 7 tips to fine tune your short script. 1.   THE SHORTER THE BETTER [...]

  2. Short Film Research | Gina A2 - July 11, 2013

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  6. Project 3: Video Research Log | Mary Reese - October 29, 2013

    [...] Joalland, Stephanie. “7 Rules for Writing Short Films.” Raindance Film Festival. N.p., 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <http://www.raindance.org/7-rules-for-writing-short-films-2/&gt;. [...]

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    [...] 7 Rules For Writing Short Films | Raindance [...]

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    [...] Read the full article on raindance.org for thumb rules to follow while making short films. And watch the short films mentioned along the way. Interesting and insightful! [...]

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