Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with the Wyoming Film Office and the Wyoming Short Film Contest, which is currently accepting submissions for 2016 and offering a $25,000 Grand Prize for the winner’s next shot-in-Wyoming project. Click here to learn more.
There’s an irony to short filmmaking. Most aspiring filmmakers come to screenwriting having grown up inspired by feature films, therefore, when it comes time make their first films, short filmmakers are often forced to work in a storytelling mode and structure that’s quite different from the films they studied. This leads to the question every film student at one point or another ends up asking themselves: What exactly makes for a good short script? Indiewire asked that question of the shorts screenwriters whose films are playing at SXSW 2016, and we got some inspiring answers that are as varied as the films playing at the fest.
Remy Dunagan, "Lucid": The key to a good short film script is only writing what explicitly needs to be known. Everything else, tell it visually. Leave the audience guessing and talking, it’s always good to leave a couple unanswered questions by the end of your film, just remember to cover the important stuff.
Geoffrey S. Glenn & Dominique Coleman, "Memories Upon Memories": Two heads. I (Geoffrey) don’t usually write my own scripts because I feel that having someone else on board to help translate the story you had written adds more to the film. In writing the story, you’re able to get across your ideas, your vision, but you can get so caught up in the thoughts and philosophies that you don’t realize some of it may not make complete sense, or that it may not be succinct enough for a short film. That’s where my screenwriter (Dominique) came in. She sifted through and completed the thought process, and took out what was unnecessary. She stayed true to the story I wrote, but still added her own mind to it, which I believe made the film stronger.
Brian Lonano, Victoria Cook and Kevin Lonano, "Gwilliam": My ideas are very succinct and I never want to burden them with too much dialogue. I’m also very conscious of the audience’s attention so I never want to drag my story on for too long. For me, the key is show more, say less and get out before you overstay your welcome.
Jim Cummings, "Thunder Road": Insist that the DNA of the film contain the goal of compelling an audience to say at least one of these three sentences: "I’ve never seen that before,” or "I’ve never thought about it like that before,” or "How did they do that?" It’s as easy as that.
Lizzy Sanford, Anna Cordell, "Hip Hip Hooray": First, stop seeking a formula and get in touch with what makes you excited to write anything at all. When you’ve written something that feels solid, read it out loud with someone else to find the weak points. I find the most powerful stories communicate a sense of mutual recognition; they expose something that resonates with a wide audience. There can be universality in even the most peculiar circumstances. A story that achieves this can exist in a completely imagined and even absurd world – but at its core it examines something quite simple.
Shant Hamassian, "Night of the Slasher": Don’t make it a full story. Make it a taste of a story leaving the audience wanting more. Make it feel like we are thrown in the middle of a much larger story and investors will want to meet with you and possibly [give] funds to see the rest of the story on screen. My film is based off a feature idea. Here’s the structure of a feature film script: Beginning, middle, end. Here’s the short film structure: Beginning, middle, end? Remember, your short is a sample, a taste of things to come. Don’t cram a full feature story in a 15 minutes. Also, keep it between 10-15 minutes. Festivals like that. James Cunningham, "Accidents, Blunders and Calamities": A unique problem efficiently explored.
Jonah Goldberg, "Icarian": Keep things specific. Writing a short isn’t the same as writing a feature where you can leave some holes and openings for room for interpretation and spontaneity. You have a limited amount of time so you have to be specific of the actions and happenings of the story.
Kevin Boitelle, "Crooked 180": For me, the most important thing is to avoid the feeling of the movie being a 10 minute joke. A lot of short films feel like a simple set-up joke with a twist or punchline at the end. Most of the time, watching these films feels like wasting 10 minutes of my life.
Jay Rondot, "Barry": I remember hearing a quote from Paul Stanley of the rock band, KISS, that went something like, "We were going to concerts and not seeing the kind of live show that we wanted to see, so we made up the band that could put on the show we wanted to see." That’s always stuck with me. In terms of a short film script, write the short that you would want to see.
Janicza Bravo, "Woman in Deep": Having a sense of what your characters want and where they would like to be.
Becky James, "Vocabulary 1": I make animation about bugs, snakes, and bats and my scripts are mostly silent. I still struggle with the scripts though, and it’s challenging to create clarity and depth without language. I have found that the most interesting movies result when I paint myself into a corner, when I have a set of characters and situations that I genuinely don’t know how to resolve. I end up adding and subtracting elements and weaving them together so that the ending feels both inevitable and surprising, even to me.
A.J. Briones, "The Smiling Man": The short films that have always stuck with me long after I’ve seen them are ones that challenge me emotionally; they don’t spell things out neatly and while perfectly enjoyable on the surface level, I love films where I can work to find some deeper meaning, metaphor, or closure. I write with that in mind. I want to give the reader something they can’t get out of their heads for awhile. I know screenwriting books and blogs about shorts are all about the "twists" but I try not to think about them as much as I think about injecting setups and payoffs that support the main through-line. Gilberto Giles-Sosa, "DoubleDVE – ‘Endeavor’": The key to writing a good short film script is authenticity, this is because the story must come from within. Lots of times, amateur writers overlook the fact that your story must be real to you, so that the audience can feel something.
Gabriel Miller, "A Reasonable Request": For me the key to writing a good short film script is restraint. Telling the story of a moment, rather than attempting to cram a feature into 15 minutes. If you can find a compelling moment or scenario in a character’s life and tell it authentically then you should be onto a winner. And the more interesting or surprising that moment is the better.
Isabelle Hodge, "Mischief and Mayhem": You never have enough time to tell your entire story, and in short films your time restrictions are especially relevant. Finding which aspects of your film will be most engaging and impactful to your audience is the best way to hone in on what is important in the short time you have.
Javian Ashton Le, "Dastaar": Establish rules for your storytelling approach. There is no right or wrong way to go about this, but whatever you choose to do, stick with it and don’t look back. This could be as simple as restricting dialogue to the bare minimum, only giving the viewer access to what the central character subjectively experiences, or designing scenes with a particular visual language in mind. An engaging film is built on specificity and what you decide to withhold is just as important as the information you choose to reveal.
Frankie Shaw, "Too Legit": Enter late, leave early. Make sure the women you write are real people.
Max Weiland, "An Arm’s Length": For me the key was to create intrigue from the opening shot. In today’s world we are bombarded with so much content that if you don’t grab the viewer’s attention in the first 15 seconds you are probably going to lose them.
Kayla Lorette, Zack Russell, "She Stoops To Conquer": Even though it’s a short, the world of the film can be as full and complex as any feature. My favorite short films feel like glimpses into something much bigger and more complicated. Start big and then distill- once you’ve got something worth distilling. Benjamin Kegan, "The First Men": Don’t just read the script aloud again and again, role play with a partner. My cinematographer and I would pick roles and read them out loud. I’d read my role as written, but whenever something felt false or too convenient he would go off the script and respond how he would respond in real life, and I’d have to adjust. Then we’d switch parts. Sometimes it made me want to smack him, but then it forced me to go back and look at the script and ask questions like, are the character’s actions really driving the scene and responses here, or is the writing? It’s not always about what you as a writer want the characters to do or where you want them to go.
Yen Tan, "1985": Make it about a moment. Something small. Something specific that a character does. It doesn’t need to be a three-act structure. Not going over 10 pages (approximately 10 minutes) is highly recommended.
Alexia Salingaros, "Lady of Paint Creek": The characters need to invite you into the space in which they are living. Details about their body language, mannerisms, and speech must create a living person through which the audience comes to care and immerse themselves in the story.
Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, "Greener Grass": Start with an idea you have a strong reaction to. It’s easy for us, as writing partners, because we know we’re on to something when all of a sudden we start talking over each other or can’t stop laughing, creep each other out, etc. But even as an individual, if an idea instantly causes a spark with you, makes you actually feel something – whether you are laughing or pissed off or whatever – it’s worth pursuing. It’s just like with sketchy dudes, trust your gut.
Ben Petrie, "Her Friend Adam": If there’s one, I think that it’s got to be speaking your own voice. Just speaking your own voice, with no regard for what you surmise might be a popular or trendy thing to do. Forget about anybody else and just entertain yourself. Maybe that sounds like artistic masturbation, but plenty of people masturbate on a daily basis, so that can’t be such a bad thing.
Really though, even in this situation, I’ve written that answer, and right away in creep the thoughts of, "Oh, God, what will some people think of that answer? They might think that’s a bit inappropriate…" But if that’s the way I approached writing all the time, I’d lose my mind. You’ve really got no instincts to trust but your own, so you best listen to them with both ears.