Short films are calling cards for screenwriters and filmmakers. They showcase your work and can help you find your strengths as a writer and director.
However, writing the most effective short is not an easy task. Short films have their own category at the Academy Awards for a reason. To tell a complete, captivating story in a very limited amount of time takes skill.
Let’s take an in-depth look at a successful live-action dramatic short. FEELING THROUGH is a 2021 Oscar-nominated film, written and directed by Doug Roland. Here’s the logline:
A late-night encounter on a New York City street leads to a profound connection between a teen-in-need and a DeafBlind man.
Watch the film for free online (running time 18min 26sec), then continue on for the analysis of what makes this short stand out above the rest:
For our purposes, we’ll focus mainly on analyzing the story: what elements in the screenwriting and the narrative make this a compelling short film?
Filmmaker Doug Roland was inspired to make FEELING THROUGH from his own personal experience, which brought authenticity to the script. Speaking to Awards Watch, Roland elaborates on the first time he met a DeafBlind person:
“It’s heavily inspired by a real-life encounter I had ten years ago. Similar story to encountering a man who’s DeafBlind late one night out on a street in New York City and having a whole hour plus with him as I sat and waited for his bus to arrive. And we communicated the whole time by me tracing one letter at a time on his palm and him writing back on a notepad. And it was a beautiful and resonant experience for so many reasons.”
The influence of Roland’s real-life experience is clear within the writing and creates the theme of the film: human connection. A universal theme within a narrative makes for a stronger script.
It’s also worth noting that the film features the first DeafBlind actor in a lead role, Robert Tarango as Artie. The authenticity he lends to the character and the film as a whole is invaluable.
The premise of the film is intriguing because it focuses on a subject that audiences rarely see, deafblindness. This hooks the audience in.
As Tereek meets Artie and explores a new way of communicating, we have the experience along with him. The seemingly simple event of Tereek reading Artie’s well-worn notebook draws the audience in because it reveals a life most of us will never know, what it is to be deaf and blind.
Diverse characters, writers, and directors offer representation that has not often been portrayed on screen, so there is a greater chance that diverse stories will offer a plot that audiences will find intriguing.
Show, Don’t Tell
Screenwriters have heard the advice to “show, don’t tell” a million times. This short is a perfect example of how that’s done. There is minimal dialogue. The plot focuses on communication with a DeafBlind man. It’s rife with opportunities to show and not tell because Tereek can’t speak to Artie.
However, notice how there is little dialogue even before we meet Artie. At the end, Tereek almost misses the bus because he closes his eyes and ears to experience what life might be like for Artie. This shows us how Tereek has changed and stepped outside of focusing on his own circumstances.
Showing versus telling creates an experience for the audience where they literally cannot take their eyes off the screen because they might miss something. This is effective visual storytelling.
Throughout, there is a balance of inner and outer conflict. This creates suspense and tension that supports the pace.
Tereek is first established as being homeless. The inciting incident of Tereek meeting Artie presents the protagonist with a choice: does he help Artie or not? Now, we have inner conflict and the outer conflict of homelessness.
Conflict escalates as Tereek still hasn’t found a place to stay, but he must now figure out how to communicate with Artie, choose whether or not to steal money from him, and he misses the bus the first time it goes by. Amidst all this, Tereek is conflicted inside, as he could abandon Artie at any moment. This creates suspense.
Within the first three minutes of the film, we know who the protagonist is, his pre-existing life, and empathy is established with him. That’s an incredible accomplishment for a film!
We meet Tereek, played by Steven Prescod, trying to survive as a homeless teen. We see what his relationships with his friends are like, get to know what brings him joy, and even the way he texts tells us something about him. It’s heartbreaking to see him so hungry when he scarfs down his food. Empathy is established because we feel for a young man struggling to find food and shelter.
Tereek has a clear and discernable character arc. He moves from focusing on his own problems to feeling for others. His choice to help Artie and put someone else’s needs before his own is the first step into a new way of looking at the world. He makes active choices as the narrative unfolds rather than being passive, and he is also flawed, as we see him steal money from Artie to survive.
Strong Dramatic Tone
The tone is established within the first few minutes of the film and stays consistent throughout. Dramas make the audience feel for the characters and can tease out salient questions that make the audience think.
Tereek’s pre-existing life as a homeless teen brings forward empathy for him and makes the dramatic tone clear. We want to see Tereek succeed in helping Artie because we want to see Artie taken care of as he’s vulnerable in the city alone. Thus, we feel for both characters. In addition, questions about what life is like for Artie are brought forward.
By the end, Tereek finally has someone that sees and feels him in Artie. Artie’s ability to feel Tereek, even without sight or hearing, and him telling Terek that he’s going to be okay, is a poignant moment. The very title of the film, FEELING THROUGH, emphasizes feeling. Tereek felt for Artie, and Artie felt Tereek, which changed his life.
This analysis of an award-winning short film should give you some insight into what makes the perfect short. You may want to go back and watch it again to catch all the details included in the story. It’s proof that even within a small period of time, a compelling story can be told. Allow FEELING THROUGH to inspire you as you write your own short script!
Feeling inspired? Enter the WeScreenplay Short Script Screenwriting Contest! Final Deadline: June 15th!
Joanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.
Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.