The script forms a blueprint for your film, so making sure you have a good story and screenplay is crucial. It forms the foundation and reference point for all the production decisions you’ll make along the path to creating your movie.
What makes a great short film story idea?
Original ideas for short films do not grow on trees. Coming up with a great idea requires creativity and research.
We recommend you start by binge watching as many short films as possible. Here you can find some great shorts from the Show Me Shorts archives. Once you have done this take a break and let your subconscious do some work thinking about what you liked and didn’t. Now think about some stories from your own life and imagination. Are there any stories you feel compelled to tell?
Some filmmakers like to tell the kind of story they would love to watch themselves. Others want to put on screen a favourite anecdote their friends always ask them to recount about something real that happened. Your idea may be a story or a process, but it must be both entertaining and unique.
Beginning with a treatment
A treatment is a great place to start figuring out your story. It’s an outline of your short film idea – usually not more than a page long, and may be only a few paragraphs. It gives an overview of the story, and provides some of the details about character, setting and tone.
A treatment is a good way of explaining your idea to others so you can get some early feedback and see if your premise has legs. It’s also a useful exercise for you to hone in on exactly what it is you want to say.
Take the time to visualise the film, and consider how you will tell it economically with a minimum of locations, characters and special effects. Your treatment should also give an indication of the story arc and structure.
Writing your script
Dive straight in to your story world. The best short film stories ‘come in late and leave early.’ What is happening or has just happened at the time your story begins? It better be interesting and capture your audience right away or you can be sure they’ll quickly switch off, check their phone or wonder what to have for dinner.
Who is your main character? Most short films centre around a single protagonist. You can write a film with more than one central character, but be aware this may dilute the emotional intensity of the story. Identify the protagonist up front for the audience, and give us a reason to care about them.
Describe your characters not just in terms of their age and appearance. Theirmannerisms and demeanour give clues to the audience about their core values. Dothey move quietly, have nervous tics or an easy smile? These quirks lend something toour imagination and can signal later plot developments.
What’s their problem? Usually your protagonist will face a problem that sets them on a quest (often called ‘the hero’s journey’) and drives the action of the film. The problem can be one that exists between the protagonist and another character, something in their world they have to change or something about themselves that requires personal growth.
The satisfaction your audience will experience rests with your ability to take them on a journey with your protagonist as they struggle to overcome obstacles and eventually succeed (or fail) in their quest. Common script problems include central characters who face too few obstacles, are passive or have no clear motivation.
What are the stakes? You can make your film more compelling by upping the intensity of the peril you put your characters in on their journey. What will happen if they don’t solve their problem? If the answer is “not much” then the stakes aren’t high enough.
How should the story unfold? When you hear people talking about ‘the story arc’, they are referring to the traditional build-up of action that develops over the course of the film. This peaks around ¾ of the way through for feature films, but in short films it often marks the ending. As your action unfolds, make sure the obstacles confronting the character build so the hardest thing the character must do happens at the climax.
Be true to your genre. The reason genres exist is because these are tried-and-tested formulas for telling a story that engages your audience. Be very careful if you plan to mess with that, as this will mess with your audience. Audiences love surprises and having their expectations subverted, but the pay-off will have to be exponentially more rewarding for them.
Show us, don’t tell us. Dialogue is notoriously difficult to get right. Remember film isa visual medium and actions speak louder than words. A common mistake is too much dialogue, or a reliance on dialogue to tell the story.
Cut the crap. After you’ve written the first draft of your script it’s time to go back and cut out anything superfluous to your story. Simplify by combining characters. There’s no time for sub-plots and anything that doesn’t drive your story forward in a short film. Don’t try and do the director’s job for them by putting in too much detail; you don’t need to write camera directions. Oh, and sorry… but you can’t afford the helicopter scene or zebra wranglers.
You can find more useful articles and advice about filmmaking on the Show Me Shorts website.