WRITING: Short Film (Concept Stage)

I never saw short films as a legitimate option for me, writing-wise. I’m a television writer at heart; I like my stories to never end, not end before they have a chance to begin. And yet, I find something fascinating about the idea of condensing a ton of feeling into less than ten pages. Plus, directors looking to build a reputation are always looking for reel pieces, which are great portfolio pieces for writers, too. So, I got used to the idea… and now I’m pretty fond of it.

How do I go about it?

(Note: The below is largely based on dramatic short films. If you have a comedy… as long as people laughs, there aren’t really rules. And if they don’t, no advice will really help beyond ‘make it funnier’… and I’m not the person to tell you how to do that.)

My preference is bottle scenes: a scene of 2-3 people in a room having a conversation, often where years’ worth of relationships are merely implied and the tension is already high. “Six Years After” is definitely one of these: two people with a heavy history, finally having a conversation they’ve both thought about for a very long time. I got pretty experienced at these, as they are the bread and butter of university courses like mine: you write a bottle scene and film it, allowing instructors to judge each member of the crew on what they know and rotate everyone over the course of the semester. My first-ever filmed script, “The Interview”, was one of these: a job applicant comes in to interview for a job, only for the hiring manager to use the opportunity to ask a never-ending series of offensive questions to drive him away. “Rubble” was also one of these. In fact, most of my classmates’ films were of this breed; 90% of them were ‘bad date’ stories, often where a homemade meal goes horribly wrong.

Sometimes they can be more ambitious. Those ones are tough because of the limited page count. In a short film, just like in a short story, scaling down the page count means every detail is of huge relative importance. A quiet beat that might feel throwaway in a film can be a crucial, everything changes moment in a short film. A character detail can explain the backstory of an entire character. Small things, in short films, matter. I’m currently writing a short film that is this ambitious, and one of the toughest parts of it is managing the exposition and character development in such a small space. In the span of ten pages or less, characters experience an entire emotional arc, which requires a keen sense of their development and an ability to say a lot with a few words.

When coming up with a short film concept, it’s hard to find the budget to wow the audience with visuals, and not much time to explore complicated ideas, so in my experience it’s good to find interesting character relationships. Two characters who aren’t comfortable with one another, who come into conflict. You want to think of dramatic conversations you’ve had, and what made them so; and uncomfortable dialogues you’ve been forced to witness from a third-party perspective. You want to think about unusual situations, or familiar ones with an odd spin. Stories where a whole film’s worth of story has already occurred, where we’re just seeing the climax.

Have you written much in the genre? Any tips?

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