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Tips for Writing a Script to a Short Film

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Shawn S. Lealos•updated: 8/11/2011

Short film scripts can be difficult as we don't usually see a lot of short films in general, and they have some dramatic differences from features. Here are some tips on how to write a short form screenplay that you want to produce.

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    Small But Not Miniature

    A short film script takes many of the principles that are common to screenwriting more broadly, but boils them down to their essentials. A short film attempts to make large scale accomplishments in only the fraction of a feature length film, which means that special attention must be paid to what goes in and what is left out. Once you begin writing it you must find a way to address the main progress and character development that we know most stories to include, regardless of format, but with a page count that will not exceed your limits. Here are some tips for writing a short film script and how you try to get a story that fits the boundaries.

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    Characters

    Writing a Screenplay Almost all scripts have a main character, a problem that occurs, and the eventual resolution of that problem. Some films try to use several characters instead of a single main character, but in most cases this is going to be difficult in a short film. It is possible to have an ensemble piece where all characters, and their story lines, are accessible, but to do this you will have to establish all of them. This takes time, and that time is going to end up costing you minor and supporting characters, plot details, and really anything that is “inessential" to the story. If you want to maintain come coloring and room for development you will want to identify one main character and stick to that. That main character should be introduced in the first scene in a short film as you have to get to the initial problem quickly, and on the first page is ideal. All characters, as well as the defining problem, should be discovered in the first act of your film. This means that in the first three or four pages of your script, and if it is under ten pages then it must be the first or second page, you will know all of the primary characters and how they relate to each other. Other characters can come in and out, but usually they will not be part of the primary character flow and will not be as important as you make your way through.

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    Structure

    The three act structure, which plainly can exist as a beginning, middle, and end, is the basis for conventional feature filmmaking. It actually maintains itself as being much more complex than that, and assumes that the challenge is taken at the end of the first act and the second act is the dominant part of the film. The third act then serves as the climax, resolution, and closing action. This dichotomy can be transferred to writing a short film script, but that is not always the best choice. There are options you can try out to see if you can focus more simply on specific areas rather than just trying to make a short version of the feature script. You can try moving to two acts where the problem is implicit to the characters and does not have the same kind of resolution. You can attempt something more plainly where the conflict and resolution are much closer together, and the set up takes quite a bit. The primary thing in these situations is whether or not it actually works in your situation. Each scene needs to be tied together, remain interesting to an audience, and draw together like a finished piece.

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    From a Production Standpoint

    Practicality is more important in writing a short film script than in feature screenwriting because a short film script is not usually a piece of Movie Time! marketable material. Feature film scripts can be purchased by studio but never made, sold as books, or act as the inspiration for another work. Short film scripts are almost never given the same credibility, so the purpose of them becomes much more plain. They exist to be made. In this way you need to write the short script while thinking about actually making the project.

    First, you need to consider the overall length. Given the standard screenwriting equation that a page means about a minute of screen time, you have to consider how long you want your short film to be. Short films that have too long of a run time, which usually means more than twenty minutes, have difficulty at film festivals and often have more difficulty getting out. Very short screenplays, fewer than eight pages, have a difficulty getting anything done unless they forgo narrative structure and take a more experimental approach. Between ten and eighteen minutes tends to be a good length for short narrative films.

    Next, you have to consider the budget of the film. Difficult locations, special effects, an excess of props, and other production elements can end up costing too much to be practical on a low budget. Since most short films are unfunded, low funded, or student films, it is hard to maintain a script that has things that are financially prohibited. The choice is then not to eliminate these elements, but to go through your script and identify the expensive items and think about why you chose them in the first place. Once you can identify the key reason why they were important you can usually find another item that will meet the same need for a smaller cost.

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