By Scott Rice
Short films afford wonderful freedoms. They are the exclusive property of the writer-director. No studio demands. Shorts therefore find themselves exempt from the tired formulas preached by countless Hollywood screenwriting gurus.
Nevertheless, savvy young filmmakers should ask: Why do some shorts fail while others win awards, make money, and jump-start careers? Do “winning shorts” have certain qualities in common? After years of studying successful short films and making projects of my own, I’ve concluded that indeed they do.
Winning shorts are entertaining. Avoid the deadly mistake of forgetting about your audience and its thirst for entertainment. Ask yourself: Does my story have an element of spectacle? Potential for visual beauty? Sex appeal? Suspense? Violence? Does it use humor? Is it surprising or shocking? Does it make clever use of genre conventions? Most importantly, is it original or “fresh”? Research student-film clichés at Filmmaker.com/dumps.html and avoid them.
Winning shorts are meaningful. Because the very nature of short film limits complex character and plot development, you must explore theme. Your story might be small, but the ideas contained within should be large, or at least clear. (Do not invoke the phrase “intentional ambiguity” as an excuse for lack of clarity—they are two separate things.) Choose concise images and turn them into metaphors. Think of the blowing bag in American Beauty.
Also, employ visual and aural motifs— images or sounds that repeat and vary to create meaning. For example, take the simple visual motif of houses in the story of the three pigs. The three houses are the visual repetition. The three different materials used to build the houses are the visual variations. Combine these images with a hungry wolf, and what is the meaning of the story? “Take the time to build a strong foundation (a house of brick) and you’ll find success (escape being eaten).”
Winning shorts are cinematic. Practice communicating character, theme and plot through images, actions and sounds. Short films are motion pictures, not stage plays. “Talky” shorts, unless brilliantly written, come off as unimaginative, boring. More often than not, an audience will favor an image-driven short film over an equally well-executed dialogue-driven short simply because it makes better use of the medium. Some of the best short films contain no dialogue at all.
Winning shorts are structured. Good feature-film scenes have dramatic structure (beginning, middle, and end). Considering most scenes run about three minutes long, why do people find it hard to apply dramatic structure to short films? Writers often complain, “How can you have plot points in a short? Plot points are big, life-changing moments like deaths, kidnappings and divorces.” Well, yes, in features a plot point must match the scale of a two-hour movie. But in a short film, there is no reason a plot point must be “big.” All it must do is take the story in a new direction (for example, accidental eye contact between two ex-lovers). Try this exercise: Write a well-structured scene that needs no set-up (scenes that come before) and a climax that resolves the story with enough closure that we don’t need any scenes after. If you pull this off, you’ve most likely written a well structured short film.
Winning shorts are human. If you make a short that prioritizes abstract concepts over human interactions and emotions, audiences will likely lose interest. Yes, ideas and themes are important, but you should communicate them through strong characters. The human element draws the audience in. Indeed, characters in shorts can’t be as broadly defined as those in features, but they can still be defined. And, yes, they can even change. First, choose a clear protagonist. Then, establish a strong point of view. Next, focus on what your protagonist wants in a very simple, immediate scenario. Crisis situations work best. Then, put something or someone in the way of that goal. Finally, decide if the protagonist will achieve the goal. If the hero fails, does he discover a more valuable principle along the way, something that reflects your theme? Does this discovery comment on the human condition?
Finally, winning shorts are simple. This is the most difficult rule to abide by. Why? Because we’re used to watching big, lumbering feature films. Shorts simply can’t use all the tools that features do. So scrap the subplots, multiple plot twists, supporting characters, etc. Short film making is a different art form altogether. BUT, the skill you must master to pull off a great short—narrative economy—is the identical skill required of great feature film writers. Agents and studios recognize this skill. So keep your short films simple and economical. Choose one and only one theme or idea to explore. Reduce locations, perhaps to just one single place. Limit passage of time, or let the story play out in real time. Pare down characters. Two are plenty. Avoid lengthy exposition or back story, especially in the form of montages, flashbacks, speeches or voice over (unless these tools are truly an integral part of your story). Focus on immediate circumstances, the “here and now.” Finally, keep your short films SHORT. A 10-minute film will not only find a wider audience than a 30-minute film, but the challenge of telling a compelling story in that limited time frame will help better showcase your command of the craft.
Of course, any rule in the world of screenwriting can and should be broken. But knowing the rules aids in breaking them successfully. Follow your instincts. Your unique artistic voice should ultimately bring you success. Success won by sticking to your guns is the best kind. It will inevitably lead to more creative freedom, the kind most Hollywood filmmakers envy in those lucky folks making their own innovative shorts.
Scott Rice is a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. He was nominated for two Student Academy Awards® in 2004 and will soon direct a short film written by Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek). A version of this article originally appeared in the Austin Film Society’s journal, Persistence of Vision.
Originally published in Script Magazine July/Aug 2009
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