8 Tips to Help You Become a Better Short Film Writer

From Camps, via Flickr - http://flic.kr/p/i55yc

From Camps, via Flickr - http://flic.kr/p/i55yc

Just because short films are short, doesn't mean that they are easier to write and produce compared to features. Short films come with their own set of challenges, and those challenges start in the script writing phase. Short film screenwriters have to tell a compelling story in only a fraction of the time, and adhere to many of the same rules that feature screenwriters follow.   

So, how can you do it? 

Here are 8 tips to help you as you develop and write your next short screenplay:

  1. Give your main character clear motivations. Just because it's a short film doesn't mean you can't flesh out a character and provide your audience with a good idea of who your protagonist is and what drives him/her.
  2. Make relationships between your characters clear. How do they feel about each other? Are they open with one another, or closed off? How well do they know each other? Don't be ambiguous about these relationships. If an audience can't understand how characters relate to each other, how will the audience relate to them, their plight, or their story? 
  3. Every scene should have a point. What is it? During a table read for one of my short screenplays, I quickly realized I had written a scene that really served no purpose, other than to set up a flashback sequence. The scene was between two people in a diner from which flashbacks occured to a point earlier in the day. However, the diner scene itself gave the reader no new information about the characters or their relationship and didn't move the story forward.
  4. Constantly ask "why?" As you write and then re-write, ask yourself "Why?" Why would this character do that? Why would this happen at that particular point? Why wouldn't this character do this instead of that? Why is this scene here? Asking "why?" challenges yourself to find a motivation for every moment (see tip #1).
  5. Don't rely on a single "gimmick" to hold your viewer's interest. With a short film, some writers may think that they don't have time to tell a complete story with a solid narrative arc. They rely on twist endings, non-linear storytelling, and other devices to create tension, suspense, and provide the story with some punch. I'm not saying there isn't any value in telling your story this way, but these devices alone will not make your short film compelling.  
  6. Give the audience a reason to cheer for your protagonist, even if he/she is bad. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford portrayed the titular characters, who were robbers and murderers, yet we as an audience find ourselves on their side when the Pinkerton Detective Agency is after them. In House of Cards we root for Frank Underwood, even though he's a cold, manipulative politician who will do anything for the sake of power. Again, ask yourself "why?" Why should we be cheering for this guy?
  7. Read your script without the dialogue. Is your story clear enough just by reading the action? 
  8. Read your script without the action. Is your story clear enough just by what the characters say? Following these last two tips will help you strike an even balance, not relying too much on dialogue, and not relying too much on action. 

If you have any other advice on how to improve your writing skills, or if you would like to share links to writing resources and/or tips, please do so in the Comments section.