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The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Short Film

By February 17, 2022November 8th, 2022No Comments

Learn how to write a short film script with these tips.

Short films are an excellent avenue for creative exploration, succinct storytelling, and getting your work out there. But, looks can be deceiving. For these bite-size narratives, shorter doesn’t mean easier. Writing a short film script has its own unique set of challenges that you don’t often have to overcome when writing a feature.

Let’s take a look at a few do’s and don’ts for writing a short film so you can be more prepared, informed, and inspired for your next short project.

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DO Make It Simple — Yet Profound

I’ve come to think of short films as akin to poetry. They offer a full beginning, middle, and end to a story but in very little time. In some ways, this makes them trickier than a full feature script; you must be excellent with subtext, exposition, and theme.

I’d argue, however, that you have some more artistic freedom in a short film than you might in a feature. You can heighten moments, dialogue, or characters in ways that will feel poignant in short form rather than unbelievable in a feature. Brie Larson’s Weighting is a great example — the dialogue is elevated and the action is fantastical.

Read More: Should You Write a Short Script?

The most important thing is that you are very clear with your theme. A great example is This is John from Mark and Jay Duplass, which focuses on a man as he struggles to record his outgoing voicemail. They shot it just the two of them in their home kitchen and that baby got into Sundance. 

DON’T Waste Time or Dialogue

Start late and end early. That’s a great rule for scenes and it’s an even greater rule for short films. After judging short films for the SAG-AFTRA Short Film Showcase, I personally came to the conclusion that 3-5 minutes is the sweet spot. That’s not a hard and fast rule — Skin won the Oscar in the short film category in 2019 and it ran over twenty-one minutes with credits. But Skin waits about five minutes into the story before the story launches. If you’re going to take that kind of time, your project had better be Oscar-worthy.

Not only are attention spans pretty short these days with quick-form digital content so readily available, but festival programmers only have a certain amount of allotted time for films. The longer your film is, the more you will have to justify the minutes.

DO Know Why You’re Writing

I went into detail about reasons to write a short film in another article, but it bears repeating here. If you intend to shoot your film, then you should keep the production budget, locations, and special effects in mind. If you want to create a short film as a proof of concept for a feature film, then you will need to succinctly capture your theme from beginning to end. This is also your chance to demonstrate your abilities as a storyteller. Whiplash is a great example of this done well.

Know your goals and limitations and write with those in mind to set yourself up for success. 

DON’T Underestimate Your Audience

Let’s circle back to subtext and exposition. Today’s audiences are very smart. They don’t need you to handhold them through overdrawn exposition or explanations. Give your characters something interesting to do and don’t waste time with unnecessary pleasantries. Get to your story. Get to your action. 

When your first draft is ready for a read, send it to trusted friends without any explanation and then ask if they had questions or if they were confused about anything. Do this in the writing stage so you don’t have to crop out lulls in the final picture edit. Your audience will keep up with you.

DO Watch Short Films

If you’re going to create a short film, study the format. Watch shorts that got into the festivals you’re interested in. Search for similar genres online. Subscribe to Short of the Week on Vimeo or Dust on YouTube. Pay attention to what you like and dislike. Pay attention to when you got bored or when your attention was captured.

Just because short films are shorter doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy. There’s an art to them — so study the art!

screenwriting competitionShannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!