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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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. 

 

Why 'Dunkirk' Is a Perfect Example of Great Visual Storytelling

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Movies often use expository dialogue to set up the world of a film so the audience is oriented and understands the "rules." Think back to the cafe scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page in Inception when Leo's character explains the world of dreams to Page's character. 

Exposition is also heavily used in sci-fi films to help explain complex ideas. Think about the worm hole explanatory scene in Interstellar.

Or the rabbit hole scene in The Matrix. 

Expository dialogue is sometimes necessary to inform the audience and to move the plot forward. When it is done well, viewers will hardly notice. When it is done poorly, the results can be groan-inducing.

But can information be conveyed to the audience by relying more on visuals than explanatory dialogue? Absolutely. In fact, as you work on your own films, I would encourage you to strip away as much of the dialogue as you can and focus more on visual storytelling. After all, film is a visual medium.

This is why I love Christopher Nolan's latest film Dunkirk. It's the perfect example of how to do visual storytelling right. There is very little dialogue throughout the film, and yet so much is conveyed about character, motivations, and emotions. The film feels very economic. There's no wasted screen time.

Consider the opening scene (*Minor spoilers ahead for the very first sequence in the film)


The opening live-action shot is an empty street in a small town. Everything is still. No one is out, except for a few soldiers who are walking down the middle of the road with full gear. Papers flutter gently down all around them. One soldier takes one and looks at it. He sees this:

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Instantly we the audience understand the situation perfectly. Rather than use up valuable screen time with a group of soldiers sitting around talking about what's going on in the war, lamenting about the fact that they're surrounded and stranded on a beach, Nolan gives us everything we need to know in one insert. Here's the scene in its entirety:

So, take a second look at the script you're working on. Do you have drawn out scenes of people talking? Is the purpose of their conversation to give the audience explanatory information about the plot, the situation, or the world of the film? If so, consider leaner, more economical, visual ways to communicate the same information.

And if you haven't seen it yet, go see Dunkirk.