When learning how to write a short film, it’s important to make your screenplay as presentable and “actable” as possible. This is done by observing such principles as standardized formatting and writing that allows everyone involved to imbue their roles with more of their personality.
- Premise. A premise is more than what your movie will be about. It represents the momentum of the story and often conveys the tools you’ll need to complete production. An example of a good premise would read like this: An amateur crook who wants to become a professional con man apprentices with a renowned grifter only to learn later that the grifter has framed him for murder. If this was your premise, right away you would know the minimum number of actors your short film would require as well as some basic props. More than that, however, you’d have a starting point to begin your screenplay.
- Formatting. If you’ve never written a screenplay before, you’ll need to learn the ins and outs of proper formatting. There are a number of good books available that can teach you which fonts are accepted, how wide your margins should be and how to tag your scenes so that they’re readable by your actors. One excellent reference is “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier.
- Page count. To write a short film, your screenplay should not exceed 60 pages. The rule of thumb in the movie industry is that one page in a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Because of this, if your screenplay stretches past 60 pages, there’s a good chance your movie will balloon to more than 60 minutes. Short films are generally considered to be a maximum of 60 minutes.
- Don’t direct the director. Unless you’re going to write a short film and direct it too, resist the urge to insert direction into your screenplay. The only things you should concern yourself with are setting, characters and internal and external dialogue. If you have a character talking on the phone, do not insert “Judy stands in front of the TV” or “Judy is framed in the doorway.” This is called “directing the director.” You can indicate the character’s feelings, but you cannot determine how the director’s shot will be staged.
- Locations. Most short films are limited to one or two locations. This is not a requirement, but it will go a long way to ensuring that your short doesn’t blow up into a feature-length production. By crafting a premise that limits the sites on which you’ll film, you’ll preserve the brevity of the work.
- Exposition. If you want to attract quality talent, you need to write a short film that avoids on-the-nose dialogue. This kind of dialogue features characters who talk about everything openly and in detail in order to bring the audience up to speed on the film’s backstory. This will reduce the quality of your short film and will make actors pass on your material. For instance, don’t write, “Well, John, as you know I am your sister and we were separated at birth, and that’s why I have resentment issues towards our parents.” Instead, write, “Oh, so NOW they want a happy little family, do they?” It hints at past troubles and leaves you room to slowly work in the details. Too much all at once, otherwise known as info-dumping, will repel good actors.
- Don’t direct the actors. In addition to not directing the director, you want to avoid directing the actors. The best way to avoid this is by not filling your screenplay with too many details. Too many details when it comes to your character’s movements and thoughts restricts the actor. It can be something as simple as writing, “He buttoned his jacket” instead of “He buttoned his jacket from top to bottom.” A subtle difference like this can free the actor to play the part more naturally, making your finished product all the better for it.
Follow these steps and you can write a short film that you’ll be proud of. It will also make directors and actors take note of your work, improving your chances of selling more screenplays in the future.