4 Tips For A Better Short Film Script

My latest short film, Final Hit, will be released this weekend, screening with nine other finalists in The Memphis Film Prize. Now that the film is complete, I've been able to take some time and reflect on the process and consider the lessons I've learned that will help me in my next project.

Earlier this summer, I posted an article pertaining to the lessons learned during the actual process of production, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the lessons I learned while writing the script for Final Hit. Hopefully this information will help you as you seek to improve your writing.

  • Go big, then aim small. The first draft of Final Hit was only 6 pages. It was essentially one scene between two characters in one location. It was a solid start, but it felt like a vignette and not a complete story. I needed more of an arc and the characters needed more authenticity. It wasn't long before my 6-page script became an impractical 20 pages. There were multiple characters, locations, flashbacks, and plot twists. The story definitely had a beginning, middle, and end, but it was simply too long for a short film. As I started to trim the script to a leaner 11 pages, I used all of that extra material to inform my edit decisions. Knowing the back story gave me a better understanding of my characters and their motivations. There was a specific reason for every piece of dialogue and every action on the page. I learned that I could say a lot with very little. I was left with a script that felt more rounded and complete. So it's important to write a lot at first so you know your characters inside and out. Then you can start molding the story. Dan Akroyd's first draft of The Blues Brothers was an incredible 324 pages!
  • Rewrite and rewrite some more. Although Final Hit is a short film with a run time of 11:59, I still wrote roughly 13 drafts of the script. Just because it's a short film doesn't mean that your writing process is short. I wrote the first draft of Final Hit in 2014 and kept coming back to it again and again, making changes all along the way. 
  • You don't need that extra character. Before moving into pre-production on Final Hit I sent the script to a fellow filmmaker for her feedback. The bloated 20-page version of my script had over 10 characters, but I had brought that number down to about six. Three of those were main characters. Her first note was "You don't need this third main character." And she was right. As I re-read the script, it became obvious that my third main character was nothing more than a vehicle to get one character from point A to point B. He really served no other purpose. I could easily write him out of the script, leaving me with only two main characters. And that's the big takeaway here: when writing a short film, keep it lean. This not only helps the story, but it also serves a logistical purpose as well. A smaller cast means less production costs.
  • Minimize your locations. This tip also helps your story and your budget. Since you are writing a short film, you don't have time to take your audience on a dizzying ride to different locations. Always think of ways to simplify and contain your story. Again, in my 20-page version of Final Hit I had about 15 different locations. I ended up with five.

These are some (but not all) of the important lessons I learned while working on Final Hit. If you have any other tips and advice for screenwriters, be sure to leave them in the Comments section below.