Friday, January 8, 2021

Thoughts on Writing a Short Film screenplay

Just like short stories operate differently from novels, short films operate differently from feature films. They employ many of the same techniques, but what makes a short film work is very different from what makes a feature film work.

I’ve been to many film festivals and, when given the opportunity, I will always choose to go to a shorts program over watching an independent feature. Often when I’m watching the shorts, I am impressed with the production value, but at the same time am thinking, “They rushed the script. There are problems here that could have been worked out on paper.” In other words, they wasted all that production value on a script that should never have been shot… and should have been rewritten many times before ever considering production.

Too often, filmmakers are in a hurry to get behind the camera, as though that’s when “the real” movie-making begins. As I often tell our students in Delta College’s Digital Filmmaking program, “It’s all filmmaking folks… from premise to treatment to script to major rewrites to script tweaking to script breakdown to storyboard, etc… it’s all moviemaking, and each stage is equally important.”

Obviously, this is my blog, so this is my opinion on what makes for a good short film. I’ve heard that in terms of having a better chance of placing in a film festival, a short film should be in the 6 to 9 minute range (and even 9 is getting on the long side). So, what are you trying to get done in that 6 to 9 minute range?

For me, the best short films operate like a joke. That doesn’t mean that they are all funny. Not by a long shot. But, like a joke, a good short film has a setup (the bulk of the script) and then the payoff (or the ending). For a short film, in my experience, the ending is everything. 

Before even starting to write a short film, a screenwriter should have a very good idea how it’s going to end. Often I hear screenwriters celebrate the “twist” ending. I’m not a huge fan of that word because it suggests tricking the audience. Instead, I think the best short films have what I would call: an inevitable, surprising, and wholly satisfying ending.

Inevitable because in the “setup” the screenwriter has already laid down the seeds of the ending… without giving it away. Surprising because the audience didn’t see it coming, but later has that “But, yes, it had to end this way!” moment. And, if the setup leads naturally, but surprisingly to the payoff well, then, the experience is wholly satisfying.

In my experience, screenwriters struggle the most with the setup. They miss opportunities. They don’t spend enough time asking, “What is this scene getting done? Is everything in this scene absolutely necessary? What more could this scene be getting done?”

Sometimes, too, though, they struggle with their ending. It can be too “on the nose” or “cliché” or “boring” or “cryptic.”

Screenwriters should really spend time thinking about the ending to their short film. How is it surprising? How is it satisfying? Then, the question becomes, what do I need to write in the “setup” to best arrive at this powerful ending.

If you’ve read this far, please take a moment to watch my short film, LINGERING EFFECT (just under 3 minutes).

Yes, it’s short of that 6 to 9 minute mark, but I didn’t want to burden you with having to watch something longer… and it has the setup/payoff moments that demonstrate what I’m writing about. I knew exactly how this film was going to end before I ever started it.

Stop reading now and watch this…

The link to LINGERING EFFECT: here

So, hopefully that ending was inevitable, surprising, and satisfying to you (if not sad). See, short films function like jokes, but they certainly aren’t all funny.

I will dissect a little bit what I was trying to do. I was fortunate when writing this film that I already knew where I would be shooting it.

Okay, so I knew how the film was going to end. I knew I had to lay down the idea that the dad isn’t really there (or is there as a ghost) without giving it away. I’ve had a few people tell me they figured it out before the ending (that’s fine, it means I put down good seeds in the setup… and in the title). 

So, my setup needed to get my audience to believe that the son is just a jerk or there’s some really bad blood between father and son. As the movie progresses, the son’s behavior gets more odd/more dismissive. I want to plant in the viewer’s head (as good shorts do!) the question and reaction, “What is going on here? I want to know how this ends!”

I won’t talk about the cinematography, but just the script.

Early on, I just wanted to create mystery. Who is this kid? Why is he walking? Why does he look so forlorn? Why does he ignore the man on the bridge? I think a good short film raises questions in its opening scenes. It establishes too that the kid smokes.

More questions. Who is the man on the bench? Why is he frustrated with being ignored? Why does he pursue the kid, and why doesn’t the kid acknowledge him at all?

Then we have the first bit of dialogue: “Hey, slow down, you’ve got company, you know?” This moment suggests familiarity or maybe this dude is just some weird stalker. The kid presses on, unaffected by the man’s plea.

The pursuit continues until the tree blocks the kid’s path. Then we get the dialogue, “Son, just go around like I did.” The “son” establishes their relationship. Also, in this scene, I wanted to establish that the father still has some ability to affect the physical world. He is able to lift the branch slightly. At this point, the father doesn’t fully understand that he is dead. The familiarity is cemented with the line “Always stubborn.” At this point, the audience should have guessed this is his father. But the question remains “What is going on here?” It’s a good question that should always be percolating throughout your script.

Just after the father tries to touch his son’s shoulder, the next scene features the son alone walking out of the woods. Where has the father gone? The kid has arrived somewhere, but we don’t see where. His occupied mind is obvious as he smokes a cigarette.

Then, the father appears again. He is able still to flick the cigarette ash (I already established that he still has some effect on the physical world with the tree branch… it is his “lingering effect.”) His line “Didn’t you learn anything from me?” suggests the father died of something related to smoking.

Moments later, we hear the kid speak for the first time… and for the audience I want them to think he’s talking to the still-living dad. I purposely had him say, “Why’d you have to leave?” versus “Why did you have to die?”… just to keep the mystery going right up to the ending’s payoff.

Everything in the script through the setup has meaning and purpose… keeping the mystery going while moving us naturally toward the (hopefully) satisfying yet surprising ending.

I must have done something right with LINGERING EFFECT. It was screened in and won a few awards from the following festivals:

Berlin Flash Film Festival (Berlin)

Brighton Rocks Film Festival (England)  

        Won Best Micro Short Film

Southern Oasis Film Festival (Knoxville, TN)

Sunrise 45 Film Festival (Alpena, MI)

Alternative Film Festival (Toronto, Canada)

Won for Best Cinematography

KinoDrome: International Motion Picture & Screenplay Festival (Cleveland, OH)

Best Micro Short Film: Second Place

The Violette Film Festival (Merced, CA)

I hope this blog post gives you some direction as you work on your own short film scripts. Remember that your setup should be raising questions that keep your viewer wanting to know, "how will this thing end?" And the ending should be satisfying, surprising, and inevitable (based on what you set up)

If you find my blog posts instructive or illuminating, please consider purchasing a copy of my new book of short stories, The Neighborhood Division.

From the Publisher (preferred): here

From Amazon: here

Book Trailer: here

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