HOW TO WRITE A SHORT FILM SCRIPT
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
Writing a short film script is a unique and fun challenge, one that I've completed many times and had some success at. Let's take a look at the process I use to write my scripts.
The Dilemma / Core Problem / Source of Drama
Before you have a character, before you have a location, before you know what the first, second and third acts are going to be, you have to figure out what the main dilemma is going to be. Some writers, like Aaron Sorkin refer to this as goal vs. obstacle.
The dilemma should force the protagonist(s) to confront their beliefs in order to achieve their goal. As such, a dramatic dilemma is a pairing of a goal with an accompanying false belief that serves as an obstacle to reaching that goal. Screenwriting teacher and founder of L.A. Writer's Lab tells us that this is at the heart of every story.
- I want to be loved for who I really am / I am afraid to show my true colours
- I want to save the world from aliens / I'm not powerful enough to do anything
- I want to be appreciated for more than my wealth / I have to buy affection
- I want to get the girl / If I lose my freedom, I'll cease to exist
Once we have a central dilemma, we can begin to understand just what the theme will be and what the characters might look like.
It is very important for your short film to have a theme threading through it. The theme will undoubtedly emanate from the core dilemma.
For example, if the core dilemma is "I want to save the world from aliens / I'm not powerful enough to do anything", the theme could be "power comes from within" or "teamwork", depending on how your plot shapes up.
The theme should be something easy to understand. I'm talking universally. Across cultures and languages. Something innate in all of us. The more primal, the better.
Structure of a Short Film
There are dozens of different structures you can employ when writing a short film script. Because short films are usually between 5 and 20 minutes long, you have to find a way to tell a complete story in a very economical way. There isn't much room for expositional scenes, though I argue exposition should never be the point of a scene anyways.
I recommend you focus on following a simple three-act structure, at least in the first few scripts you write. It's what audiences are most used to seeing.
Act 1: We meet the protagonist or hero of the story. We see that they are living in an unjust situation and are confronted with a powerful dilemma between a goal and adhering to a false belief. The theme is stated (often literally in the dialogue). An event occurs which rips them out of their normal world and forces them to pursue their goal.
Act 2: They meet a guide who helps them navigate their journey. A b-story of some kind begins (normally the love story or some other side quest related to their inner struggle). They struggle after the goal and we reach the mid-point of the story. The protagonist usually experiences either false victory or false defeat. After they realize the journey isn't over, the stakes rise considerably and the antagonist closes in. Normally, at the close of the second act we see the protagonist feel defeated and lost, as if all hope is lost. Often referred to the dark night of the soul. At this point a realization takes place, that maybe if they let go of their false belief and surrendered to the momentum of the lesson at hand, they may have a chance at winning this thing.
Act 3: The protagonist(s) march to the battlefield (keep in mind, this could be someone's house in a romcom, an alien mothership in a sci-fi, or the tennis world-championship in a sports drama). After surrendering their false belief, they are now more powerful than ever before. They confront the injustice that the antagonist had been perpetuating and defeat them. The b-story wraps up here. We see the protagonist as fully transformed, realizing their true potential. We usually end with a mirror image from the start of the first act (ie. the guy now has the girl, the city is safe again from aliens, the tennis star is now a coach and helping other kids etc).
I usually look at character next. Some people say to start with character, and that's fine too. Either way, you need to define who is going to be the protagonist or hero, who or what is going to be the antagonist/forces of antagonism or villain and what supporting characters will be needed to make the story feel alive.
The protagonist should be created with the dilemma in mind.
- Dilemma - I want to be loved / I'm scared to reveal my true self
In this case, the protagonist might look like this:
- Jackson, 33, single
- never had a long-term relationship
- works as a taxi driver
- wears different masks throughout the day, often changing who he is with different customers
- was teased as a child
- is secretly scared of everything, puts on a tough exterior
- secretly likes flowers very much
- has a beautiful indoor garden in his apartment - which he shows to nobody
In this example, we have a character that is well-suited to the central dilemma of the story.
We can totally imagine how he might be feeling if we put him into any number of situations.
The plot is what happens throughout the story. It's a sequence of events, each affecting the next through the principle of cause-and-effect.
I have heard other writers say you need to do a plot outline before you start writing scenes. Others will tell you that you need to sit down and start writing scenes before your characters tell you what the plot is. Personally, I like to have a rough plot outline in mind before I start writing any scenes.
Event A causes Event B to cause Event C.
Beginning, middle, end.
After you have your plot mapped out, you can now finally sit down and write the scenes. At this point, it should start to flow out of you. You've done all the hard work of figuring out your core dilemma, you know who the main characters are, and you have a rough outline in place. It's just a matter of writing the dang thing now.
Scene writing is a combination of location, action, and dialogue. Normally, a scene will have some degree of dramatic tension in it. Keep this in mind. If one of your scenes has no dramatic tension, you probably need to delete it.
I have written 2 page scripts and had the resulting films accepted into film festivals. The same goes for 45 page scripts. I have learned over the years, however, that the ideal length for a short film script is between 8-15 pages. Any shorter and you run out of space to tell a story. Any longer and festivals tend to get mighty picky (as you are taking up space for more than one short film if yours is 45minutes and most other ones are 10min.)
If you aim for 10 pages, you will have yourself an approximate running time of 12 min for an action script and 9 min for a drama (as dialogue takes up more space on paper than it does in terms of running time and action is the opposite, generally speaking).
ADVICE ON COMPLETING YOUR SCRIPT
Writing is exceptionally hard one day, and easy-peasy the next. I don't know why. It's always been like that for me. There have been times where I have had 25 page days followed by 1 page days. I think the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to be consistent. Try and set a realistic schedule for yourself.
Personally, I write for 2 days per week. I have a full-time job and a family, so it's impossible to commit more time than that. At least if I know I will be back at the keyboard every 3-4 days, I can keep the momentum going.
I also keep a Google Doc open on my phone / laptop / computer, so that anytime I have an idea for a scene, a character or a core concept, I can write it down. Inspiration can hit you at the most inconvenient of times and I want to be sure I don't forget a great idea I had because life got too busy.