7 Simple Secrets for Making an Outstanding Short Film

by Timothy Cooper

Have you heard of the short films Doodlebug, Supermarket Sweep, or Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB? No?

Then how about Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, or George Lucas? Okay, good. They directed those short films at the very beginning of their careers.

So why make a short film? Because it’s probably the best calling card for an upcoming writer or director. Creating a strong short is one of the easiest ways to start out on the festival circuit, prove a feature concept, or get commercial work. And it’s almost definitely the fastest way to see your work onscreen, test your writing/directing skills, and get your name out into the world.

Here are three of my favorite recent shorts (all free online!), all of which happened to play at Sundance in the past few years:

The Crush (writer/director: Michael Creagh)

Please Say Something (writer/director/animator: David O’Reilly)

Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight (writer/director: Eliza Hittman)

I highly recommend watching all three of these. There are many lessons we can learn from them—and the hundreds of other shorts I’ve seen over the years.

Here are my top seven takeaways:

  1. They make use of film as a visual medium. These films aren’t just about strong, economical dialogue. Visual epiphanies are just as important; so are moody moments of pure color, texture, and sound, as well as other evocative, raw images. Takeaway: Talking heads alone won’t work; don’t be afraid of silence, music, and beauty. Consider replacing non-vital dialogue with pure reactions and other meaningful, visual moments.
  1. The writer/director clearly demonstrates a personal connection to the story. In Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight, the filmmaker has probably struggled with seeking acceptance, just like her lead. And we can all identify with the idea of having a crush on a teacher. The Crush’s screenwriter likely thought, What if I had taken that crush to the next level? For Please Say Something, writer/director/animator David O’Reilly clearly has a powerful and dark view of the struggles a relationship entails, and how two different people can feel as alien to each other as a cat and a mouse.

In each of these shorts, the creators’ connection to the material demonstrates a powerful point of view—something that’s much harder to find when you tackle big topics like space travel, the meaning of life, or an entire relationship. So please, keep your topic personal; you don’t need to address huge themes. By keeping your focus narrow, you will address those themes better than you could have imagined. Takeaway: The specific is the universal, so keep it personal or find a personal connection to the material. Having a strong, unique point of view on the subject matter is key.

  1. They tell a story of one character’s or couple’s journey—but no more. These shorts don’t overreach. Remember: A short film is not a feature. It has little room for subplots, secondary characters, montages, or epic scope. It covers a single dilemma and resolves it in some way by the end. Too often, writers attempt to confront multiple dilemmas, introduce us to more than two main characters, or recreate a whole chunk of their feature film. A short is not the place for any of that. It’s the chance to attack one major scene or conflict—nothing more. Takeaway: Limit your reach. Utilize the “short” part of this medium by telling just one story and telling it well.
  1. They use available resources. Notice that the two live-action films I linked to have few or no effects shots. They don’t have explosions, car chases, spaceships, or lasers. Instead, the drama and tension come from highly personal stories that take place mostly in enclosed environments (because those are easiest to film in). Don’t try to replicate movies with budgets of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars—because you can’t. Just make what you have look as good as possible. Takeaway: Use the cast, crew, locations, and equipment you have; don’t try to replicate Hollywood movies’ effects. That simply won’t look good.
  1. They feature memorable characters. Film and TV are about characters; even the biggest special-effects-heavy movies are nothing without memorable leads. Gun battles, alien invasions, the apocalypse—they’re all really about the characters these events happen to. These short films demonstrate that the filmmakers can build characters that sear themselves in our mind, even in the space of just 10 or 15 minutes. Plot, twists, and story are all important, but without someone we can empathize with, your film will be forgotten. Takeaway: Give your characters strong personalities, quirks, wants, and goals. That way, we’ll care about them, and willingly follow them on their journey.
  1. There’s a twist at the beginning and a twist at the end. In all of these shorts, the story is unpredictable; we’re constantly kept on our toes. And the endings bring an even deeper surprise. For example, in The Crushspoiler alert—not only was the boy not using a real gun, but he was indeed correct about his teacher’s fiancé not being good enough for her; the boy helped prove his cowardice. It’s a beautiful twist. This is exactly what viewers want in every television show, feature film, and short film, no matter what the genre: Set up our expectations, then subvert them. Takeaway: Don’t make a predictable movie. Put in as many twists as possible—especially in the first minute and the final minute.
  1. Their outlook is largely optimistic (or they at least end on an upbeat note). It’s relatively easy to say something cynical about human nature, relationships, or people’s greed. But can you find something positive in even the darkest story, while still being true to your vision? If you can leave the viewer with at least a moderately positive impression, they’ll be more likely to remember your work. This isn’t to say that you need to add an upbeat, rom-com-style ending to a story that doesn’t warrant it. But do challenge yourself to see if your ending can be more of an upper than a downer. Takeaway: End with a positive spin, if at all possible.

If you can create memorable characters, demonstrate a unique worldview, and use the visual medium of film to demonstrate your personal connection to an intriguing, unpredictable situation, you’ll create a short film that everyone wants to see.

Now that you’ve absorbed these seven invaluable tips, you’re probably eager to learn the foundations of short-form screenwriting, producing, and directing. The best and fastest way to embark on this journey is, of course, to take my upcoming online class from The Writers Store:

Write and Produce Your First Short Film…for Next to Nothing!

You’ll learn all the basics of creating your first short film, including: crafting a honed script with a unique hook and arresting images, using already-available resources (sets, wardrobe, cast, equipment) to your advantage, casting, rehearsing, budgeting, editing—and more.

Will your name join the list of prestigious directors above? If you take this class, the odds will be in your favor!


Timothy Cooper wrote and directed the web sitcom Concierge: The Series, starring comedians from Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Last Comic Standing, the Onion News Network, CollegeHumor, and Upright Citizens Brigade. The series was nominated for the first-ever WGA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing Original New Media.

His first feature-writing credit, Away From Here, starring Nick Stahl, Alicia Witt, and Ray Wise, is set for release in 2014. Timothy’s digital sitcom pilot, We Are Criminal Masterminds, became a nationwide top-five finalist in the Samsung Second Screen Storytellers Competition at the New York Television Festival. He is currently developing multiple pilots and features, as well as preparing to direct his next short film.


Don’t miss Timothy’s webinar – Write and Produce Your First Short Film… for Next to Nothing!

Screenwriting Webinar from The Writers Store

ws_firstshortfilm-500_mediumAt a Glance

      • This is a crash course for screenwriters who want to empower themselves by directing their first film
      • Learn the best ways to successfully cast, produce, budget, and direct your first short—plus write a bulletproof script that stands out in the crowded short-film marketplace
      • You’ll realize that creating an ambitious short film is feasible using the resources you already have




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