How to write a short film script

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A while ago I gave a talk with Aliff Zulkifli at the SAE Institute in Singapore. Some of the students continued to help us on KINKS, my second feature. I decided to post some of the topics I talked about:

How to write a short film script - every film starts with a story: An audience will always watch a film with great story, even if the visuals are mediocre. (But even if the visuals are stunning... if the story sucks you switch off after a couple of minutes.)

1) KEEP IT SHORT - You increase your chances to

* get accepted in festivals. (Think as festival programmer: take 3 short films each 10 minutes long or rather 1 short film screening for 30 minutes?)
* get your short viral. (Think of a 5 min email attachment vs. a 25 min email attachment. Do you watch more youtube videos with a length around 2 min. or more videos with a duration of almost 10 minutes?
* finance it. A 40 min short film will cost you a lot more (work & money) than a 4 min short film, but will give you less possibilities of exposure (through festivals etc. as explained before).

If you apply the rule of thumb, 1 page equals 1 minute, try to keep your script around 10 pages or less.

2) KEEP IT SIMPLE - Piling up information will rather stress your viewer than entertain them.

* Keep the characters to a minimum - you don't have much time in your short to introduce too many characters (and it keeps your production costs low)
* Same goes for locations - keep them at a minimum. And keep them accessible. No point to write a short story in an actual airplane or this super expensive yacht... unless you know somebody who owns a private jet or the yacht.
* keep the visual FX to a minimum (- keep the costs low).
* keep balance... You don't want to fill up your short with the introduction of too many locations and characters. The introduction should be short and sweet to be able to focus on your story. Keep your story simple to avoid the struggle with a heavy set-up.

It doesn't matter what your short story is about, you need a conflict. Without conflict there's no story. Imagine telling somebody you went to buy ice cream. Imagine you tell your friend

* how you actually bought a bus ticket (on the way to the ice cream shop),
* how you used the ticket machine,
* how you slotted in the coins,
* how you entered the bus,
* how you took a seat next to a man,
* how the bus stopped at station 1 (etc.)


* How your girlfriend or boyfriend called to ask you to come home quickly, but you promised somebody else to pick up the ice cream. So you decided to rush for the ice cream first.
* But the ticket machine didn't take your coins and nobody could change your notes.
* Your girlfriend / boyfriend called again, demanding what takes you so long (etc.)


You can write about:

* an idea / concept (writing about time, about love, about forgiveness, about being clumsy, ...)
* a person (your best friend, your uncle, an imaginary friend, your super hero)
* a location (this spooky abandoned house you know, the beautiful river behind your friend's house, ...)
* Or maybe you have a joke in mind?

As soon as you got your starting point, organize your structure and the CONFLICT!

* What's your idea about? Let's say it's about time... who experiences the passage of time (meaning who's your main character) and what's the conflict? (Does he / she doesn't want to grow older but the birthday is coming closer? Is he / she waiting for her birthday and cannot wait for the time to pass fast enough?)
* If it's about the person, what does this person want and what gets in his / her way? (This young man wants to date. His conflict: the girl he wants to date is actually the girlfriend of his best boyfriend.)
* If your initial starting point is a location, you can either just take it as a backdrop and create the story and conflict around it OR you can think of the location being a protagonist (the spooky house wants to be left alone. Now there are these two nosy youngsters coming and sneaking around...)
* The protagonist of your story doesn't have to be a person... it can be a soft toy, a house, a car, basically anything you want. As long as there's a conflict.


Imagine watching this:

A woman says to a man she lives in a poor hut without running water.

We see that woman in her run down poor hut, struggling to carry water up the hill.

Film is visual. Stay away from telling your story in dialog if you can show it in pictures instead.

Ironically, there are a great many short films that are far too long. With a short it is doubly important to go back into your first draft and look for the little efficiencies that never occur to you the first time through.
Two scenes could be one, five lines of dialogue could be two. Something expressed through a dialogue exchange could have been expressed through a simple visual instead. There are always ways to make a short script shorter, and you can't be afraid to tear it apart and find them.

7) A recommendation: TRY TO AVOID HEAVY DRAMA
Especially if you are a short movie beginner. It's much easier to get a laugh or a cheap scare out of your audience than to make them feel deeply moved. Most feature movies don't manage it and they had 90 minutes to introduce us to the characters and make us feel about them.