So, you want to make a great short film? One of the first steps to making a memorable short film is understanding what is unique about the short film format and how to use it to your advantage. While visual storytelling is an important part of your short film (and you should definitely plan out your visuals as a director), it’s equally, if not more important, that your short film be structured and written well. In order to do that, first you have to understand this: there’s a big difference between short and long-form content.
Short films are much shorter in length. Therefore, by their nature, they limit how many ideas you can explore, characters you can introduce, and so on. Because of this, you have to make far different decisions when it comes to story structure, characters, conflict, and idea/concept choice than you would for a longer film. But these differences aren’t bad. They can give you the opportunity to explore concepts you can’t in a longer format.
All of the below tips hinge on one principle – that for short films, less is more.
When you are coming up with your short film story, you should identify whether your concept is something that is better suited to short-form or long-form storytelling.
Some stories are better suited for a short film. It is possible to translate short to long format (this happens more and more lately, such as with “Lights Out” by David Sandberg), but it can be quite difficult, and can result in a feature film with a premise that is stretched too thin. On the other hand, there have been some very popular feature films that started as short films. Likewise, a longer concept may not be easily condensed (without losing important pieces) to a shorter film.
Without further ado, here are 3 guidelines to creating a killer short film.
1. Your short film should only explore one major concept or idea
Here’s a general rule of thumb: A short film of approximately 10 minutes or less should only explore one major idea or concept.
For more traditional narratives, you may be trying to send a simple message or communicate a belief. For example, ‘selfless sacrifice leads to fulfilment’, or the opposite, ‘selfishness leads to suffering’. Whatever that may be, it’s simple and to-the-point. On the other hand, your film might be more concept-driven. ‘A quiet couple on a road-trip at night are actually vampires travelling to find their next victim.’ Or, ‘A man finding items for his grocery shopping list is revealed to be scavenging for his family after the apocalypse.’
You might notice that the first two items have a message, while the second two don’t (they focus on a twist reveal). This is one of the great things about the short film medium – you have some flexibility. These concepts are doable. A simple setup and pay-off. By limiting the information you share with your audience, you can tell your story very well without watering down their experience. So, if your idea looks like it can’t be reduced to exploring one idea… it may not be suited for a short film.
One major idea example: Spend time with loved ones wisely while you have it / focus on what is most important first. (I’ll expand on this concept in the next section)
2. Your short film should only explore one relationship/conflict
There’s a difference in how characters, relationships, and conflict – which are all closely intertwined – are explored in a short film compared to a longer film.
With limited time available, you have to limit the exploration of relationships between characters. You aren’t going to see a lot of character development, growth, or change in 10 minutes or less. More specifically, a short film should have one major conflict or goal that a character is trying to resolve. This single conflict and its stakes create the drama your story needs without overcomplicating your story.
One major conflict/relationship example: John’s marriage to Katie is failing because he’s a workaholic.
In this scenario, you should keep it simple. You should not also explore the fact that John might lose his job, which is why he’s been at work so much, that his kid’s been hanging out with a bad crowd, that he’s having an affair, or anything else you might think up. You should really focus in on a single conflict and its resolution.
In a long-form film, there’s time to explore multiple relationships and at much greater depth. However, a short film will be bogged down with exposition, hanging plot threads, and more, if you try to explore too much at once. Focus.
3. The resolution and the plot twist
Now that you’ve got one laser-focused idea, and a single drama-filled conflict/relationship…
You need to wrap up your short film in a clean and satisfying way.
It’s very important that your films set up – the conflict in your story – has a satisfying payoff for your audience. There are various ways to do this, but a great method is the plot twist. Short films are uniquely suited to plot twists. You can hit home with your short film’s main idea and bring the conflict to a resolution at the same time. While plot twists can be difficult to pull off in short films or longer films, it is significantly easier to hinge a short film’s payoff on a twist. I’ll use my final example to sum things up.
Plot twist example:
Instead of the story of the conflict between John and Katie clearly taking place in real time, we show shots of John driving his car down the road.
We cut to that throughout the film, between shots of him and Katie arguing. We don’t try and make the shots of him and his wife look like flashbacks. We make it seem very recent. It might even seem like John is driving away from the house – he’s just left the house to gather his thoughts after his heated argument with Katie. Then, we show a shot of John picking up a bundle of fresh-picked roses at the store. We could even just show the flowers in the passenger seat. Your audience will think… ‘Oh – he’s going home to apologise with flowers’.
The flashback argument ends.
Back to real-time. John pulls up somewhere and stops. We can’t tell where he’s stopped, but it’s fair to assume it’s his driveway. It’s a closeup of him, so we can’t tell where he actually is. Cut to…
Husband laying down flowers at his wife’s grave.
What do you think of that?
One major idea example: Spend time with loved ones wisely while you have it / focus on what is most important first.
One major conflict/relationship example: John’s marriage to Katie is failing because he’s a workaholic (a husband and wife fight over their strained relationship).
Plot twist example (the resolution): The audience realises he is reminiscing on his relationship with his wife, who has passed away. John experiences the negative outcome of not spending time on what is most important.
Summary: 3 tips for a compelling short film plot
Firstly, remember that with short films, less is more.
Due to their shorter length, you are limited in how many ideas, characters, and conflicts you can explore effectively.
- Have one major idea or concept with a simple setup and payoff.
- There isn’t time for in-depth character development, so focus in on one relationship and conflict.
- Make sure to wrap up the story cleanly by giving your audience a satisfying payoff at the end.
Remember that these are just guidelines, so you shouldn’t be afraid to go outside the box and experiment.
Lastly, remember that just like crafting a good story before you roll the camera is key, you should also put plenty of thought into how you will use the visuals to tell your story. If you don’t do that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Short films are a wonderful storytelling medium, so get out there and make great films!