I really enjoy working in short films. Over the years I've written, directed, and edited close to 20 shorts. I've read many short film scripts. I've seen dozens of shorts at various festivals. I've judged short film screenplay competitions. The more I see, the more I read, and the more I create, the more I start to see and understand why certain short films succeed, and why others fall short.
Here are a few common denominators I've seen among those short films (including my own) that just don't work. If you avoid these while writing your next script, the finished film will be a lot stronger.
Too much backstory
Short films offer audiences brief glimpses into a world. We don't necessarily need to know how we got where we are. What's most important is what's happening right now, in this moment. Eliminate anything that has to do with backstory.
Too much set up
Have you ever listened to people at a party try to tell a joke, but they get so bogged down in the details of the setup, that by the time they finally reach the punchline you've lost interest? The same is true for short films. If you take too long to get to the core essence of what you're film is about, then viewers will lose interest.
Too much exposition
Christopher McQuarrie, writer and director of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Mission:Impossible - Fallout, said (in an interview on The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith) that "Information is the death of emotion." Don't have your characters tell each other exactly what they're thinking or feeling. Use subtext. Don't tell the audience exactly what's going on. Convey that information visually.
Too much voice-over
In my opinion, voice-over is often unnecessary for one main reason - it doesn't add anything to the story that can't already be ascertained by what's happening on screen. When executed correctly, voice-over can provide the viewer with necessary context. It can also be used for comedic effect. But if you're thinking about using voice-over, I would recommend first writing your script without it. See if the story works. If not, then carefully introduce voice-over in very strategic spots.
Too many flashbacks
Flashbacks are dangerous in a feature-length film because they can completely kill the forward momentum of the story. So they should definitely be avoided in a short film. But hey, we've all used them before. I know I have. However, I've since learned my lesson. Remember, you want your short film to get straight to the point. Flashbacks only add to the time it takes to get your audience from A to B.
One of the great things about art, be it paintings, books, or films, is that it's always up to interpretation. It's fun to discuss art; its themes, emotions, motivations, etc. So it's disappointing when I see short films or read scripts that tell me exactly what it's all about. It feels like some kind of after-school special, where characters tell us the main lesson just before the credits roll. "See Timmy, good friends make all the difference." Don't preach to your audience. Be subtle. Don't be afraid to be ambiguous. Life is messy. Some things are better left unsaid. If your character motivations are clear, and the story lean and concise, the themes will be evident.
As you read through these tips you may have noticed how many times I used the phrase "Too much..." That's because the best short films are the ones that keep everything simple.
What other tips do you have for creating a really strong short film? Leave them in the Comments section below.