by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)
While there are many good books on screenwriting out there and tons of great advice here at LA Screenwriter, one area that gets short shrift is the art and strategy for writing shorts. This is unfortunate, because while writing and selling a motion picture or television script can seem like winning the lottery, writing a short and getting it produced is very attainable for anyone with a little talent, a little money, and technology not much more complicated than your iPhone.
Here are my ten tips for writing a short script.
1. A short film is a short film.
For practical reasons (like cost), limit your script to ten pages or less. If you want to get into film festivals, limit to eight pages or less. (Documentaries can run slightly longer if it’s a particularly weighty topic.) Nothing wrong with longer shorts, if these previous two issues are not a concern for you. If you’re just going to drop your final short on YouTube or Vimeo, who cares how long it is. That said, I see many longer shorts that could easily be cut by 30-50%.
2. Consider underused genres.
Genres such as comedy, science fiction, suspense, and animation are often overlooked. For example, film festivals see very few comedy short submissions, so if you make a good one, it’s bound to stand out.
3. Find a clever gimmick or simple dramatic moment.
Many shorts revolve around a simple, clever concept (or gimmick) or simple dramatic moment/event/incident that is developed into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Look at Lights Out for gimmick or On Time by Ted Chung for simple moment. But avoid shorts that rely solely on a twist ending. If the rest of your film is boring or lame, no one will care about your clever O-Henry-style surprise ending. Beware of trying to cram a feature film narrative into a short subject. Most shorts are brief confections.
4. Be provocative.
A provocative topic or challenging point of view can be a way to get some attention as a writer or filmmaker. For example, see the series of shorts called That’s Harassment or look at the PSA called F*ck the Poor.
5. Be compelling.
Conceive of your main character as someone we’d like, admire, or if flawed, someone we’d like to see saved. Now give them a real problem to surmount. Anti-heroes need a good reason to live and be worthy of attention in your story. Not doing so can be a rookie mistake.
6. Get your story going right away.
Too much “set up” can be a killer in a short film. Try to grab the viewers right from the start. Begin your story as late as possible into the drama of your narrative. For example, if you’re writing a six-minute horror story, don’t make the viewer/reader wait five minutes to get to the horror. You want to capture the audience’s attention right from the start and never let go. On a related note, filmmakers should avoid using opening credits in shorts. The title is enough. This problem was famously spoofed in the 1969 animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla.
7. Avoid clichés.
A lot of painful and overused tropes pop up in shorts films. My list includes: the magic of childhood, dysfunctional families, first dates, crimes gone wrong, obvious or overly familiar personal afflictions, it was all a dream, tortured artists, anything that confuses “edgy” with interesting. Avoid shorts that are personal “therapy” or a “soapbox.” This doesn’t mean politics is out of bounds, but rather, think of your short as entertainment for someone other than yourself. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with writing a personal short, but avoid being a “navel gazer.”
8. Beware of proof-of-concept shorts.
If you are writing your short as a proof-of-concept for a longer work (like a feature film or series idea), remember that it first must work as a short. Don’t let your short be held hostage to the longer work. The short version must be able to stand on its own as a complete thought. In most cases, you should avoid just shooting a scene from the longer work.
9. Don’t forget nonfiction.
Most nonfiction scripts are written after some or most of the film is shot. (Sometimes called a “paper edit.”) So before you shoot, make sure you have a solid outline and shot list that incorporates your understanding of the topic and the kind of narrative you’d like to see in the film. While “reality” doesn’t always cooperate, you have to start with a point of view if you want to shoot your subject matter economically.
10. Write for the reader.
Write your short so other people will understand it. Because short films are often personal projects where the filmmaker knows exactly what they intend, they will sometimes write their scripts in a “code” or shorthand form that only they can understand, omitting traditional screenwriting information and proper formatting. Don’t, just don’t!
Ken Aguado is a screenwriter, producer, and author. His producer credits include The Salton Sea, (Warner Bros.), Sexual Life (Showtime). His most recent films are the documentary Miracle on 42nd Street (2017) and An Interview with God (2018), which he also wrote. Ken is also the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible and author of Based On.