Here's Why Your Short Film Script Isn't Working

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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.

Too on-the-nose

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.

30 Ways to Brainstorm Short Film Ideas

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I always like to start off the New Year by sharing content designed to inspire your next film project. To get started, feel free to review these articles that I've posted over the past couple of years:

Recently while browsing through my Twitter feed, I came across this handy resource from Studio Binder that gives you 30 ideas for brainstorming film ideas. They have a printable version available on their website.

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How To Find Great Ideas For Your Next Script

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Where do you get your ideas?

This is a question filmmakers are often asked. And it's a valid one. If audiences see a film that moves or inspires them in some way, they want to know the backstory. They want to pull back the curtain on the process to learn something about the filmmaker, about the process in general, and maybe a little bit about themselves and humanity.

Answering the question can be difficult, however, because inspiration comes in many different ways and takes on many different forms. When it comes to tackling the question, I can only speak for what has worked for me on my own short film projects. So, if you're interested in writing a screenplay, whether for a short or feature, here are a few tips on how to get the creative juices flowing.

Inspiration is everywhere. You have to be open to it.

This is a mindset you have to develop if you want to do anything creative - writing, painting, photography, etc. You have to be observant to the world around you. Get outside of your own personal circle. Put down your smartphone. Learn to watch, listen, and observe everything that doesn't directly affect you. Got it? Good. Next...

Keep a notebook for jotting down anything. 

Moleskine notebooks are my preference, but whatever you select, maintain some kind of creator's notebook where you can jot down anything like bits of dialogue, scenes, situations, random thoughts, etc.  I've written before about the importance of keeping a notebook, even if you don't use those ideas right away. It quickly becomes a repository that you can visit later, reviewing old ones and perhaps re-mixing them with something new. There's great value in physically writing things down, but if you need something digital, use Evernote. It's a great tool for getting your ideas organized. It also syncs across all your devices and everything you enter becomes searchable, making retrieval of old ideas quick and easy.

Write from your own experiences.

Everyone has a story. Think back on your own life experiences. Is there anything that happened to you that might be a good jumping off point for a script?

Keep a dream journal.

Dreams can be absolutely crazy and non-sensical, but they may be a good source for material. "But I never remember my dreams!" Try this: After waking up, but before getting out of bed, relax and let your mind wander for a few minutes. You'll be surprised to find out that you can remember more about your dreams than you first thought. When you're up and getting ready for the day, your brain is focused on those tasks, not on the dreams. That's when you tend to forget them.

Watch other films.

What genres do you like? What type of story would you like to tell? With these answers in mind, start watching other films that fit within that mold. See what works well and what doesn't. Are there any themes found within these works that you would like to expand upon? Any narrative structure you would like to try? When you're first starting out, you will often imitate what you know. The more you develop your skills you will take these ideas from other sources and re-mix them and make them into something completely different.

Listen.

Listen to people as they talk with each other. What kinds of stories do they tell? How do the listeners respond? People that know how to tell a good story are engaging and fun to be around. Why? Use these moments as inspiration for your own plots and story structures. 

Also, listen to music. Sometimes a certain melody will spark an emotion. Sometimes a specific lyric will make you think of a time or a place, or maybe a relationship or a conflict. 

Exercise.

Whether it's jogging, hiking, cycling, or something else entirely, physical activity is a great way to generate ideas. 

Don't Sleep.

This one comes from an article I read a few years ago in which Lorne Michaels talks about how the grueling and tiring schedule at Saturday Night Live actually helps the writers come up with great ideas. And there's scientific research to back up the claim. Go read it for yourself. It's very interesting. 

Finally, just start writing.

Discipline yourself to spend 15-20 minutes just writing things down in your notebook. It doesn't matter what it is. Talk about your day, your anxieties, what makes you happy or sad, your fears, your relationships, anything. The point is this: put pen to paper and put it all on the page.

Hopefully these ideas will help you as you try to find the next big idea for a great new screenplay. If you have anything to add, please share it in the Comments section.

A Helpful Method for Structuring Your Script

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Structure is so important when writing a screenplay. Every beat has to tell us something about character and story. Set-ups established in act 1 have to pay off in act 3. The challenge, however, is reigning in all of those ideas and making them fit into a proper structure.

Every writer has his/her methods for crafting a screenplay, whether it's writing an outline, or writing each scene on index cards. The point of these methods is to help the writer get a bird's eye view of the entire story and to know exactly where he/she has been and where he/she is going.

One of the methods I learned years ago at a screenwriter's workshop is the Grid Method. It's very simple to set up and use and it might help on your next screenplay project as you work on mapping out the entire story.

  1. Take a regular piece of notebook paper and turn it sideways so you're working with a landscape view, not a portrait view. This will give you more room to write.
  2. Create four columns across the page. Label the first column Act 1, the second Act 2A, the third Act 2B, and the fourth Act 3.
  3. At the bottom of your first column write, "Inciting Incident," at the bottom of the second column write "Midpoint," and at the bottom of the third column write "The Fall." If you're unfamiliar with these terms, here are some definitions:
    1. The Inciting Incident is the singular moment in the film that starts the hero off onto his/her journey. It usually occurs in the first 10-15 minutes of the film.
    2. The Midpoint is the moment during Act 2 when there's no turning back. The Hero is fully invested now. He/She has to keep moving deeper into the cave in order to find his/her way out. 
    3. The Fall is the point at the end of Act 2 when everything seems lost and the Hero is down for the count. 
  4. As you move down each column (using a numerical or bulleted) list, write down every major story beat for each act in your screenplay. Make sure that each beat is logically leading you up to the Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Fall. Note that you are just writing down plot points. Don't worry about dialogue, character traits, motivations, goals, etc. The purpose of this exercise is to give the plot of your screenplay structure.

When finished, you will have the entire story arc spread out on a single page for easy reference. You can see which moments in Act 3 were set up in Act 1. You can see if you've raised the stakes high enough for your Hero in Act 2. It's a great system for evaluating story and determining what works and what doesn't.  

This system may work for you, but you may find some other technique that works better. Here's another system I found a few months ago that looks incredibly useful for structuring story. It's called the Storyclock Notebook. Be sure to check it out. The important thing is that you find a system right for you. 

What are your writing habits? What technique works best for you? Be sure to leave your tips in the Comments section.