Film & TV

How to Write a Short Film: Step-by-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 6 min read

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Short films garner Oscars, launch careers, and dazzle audiences with bite-sized stories. A short film is an excellent calling card for a first time filmmaker or a fun side-project for an established writer who has a five minute story they’re burning to tell. At the end of the day, a short film is just a short movie with a clear, compelling story.

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What Is a Short Film?

While there’s no Hollywood rulebook that says how long a short film must be, generally speaking, a short film is a motion picture up to 50 minutes long. That said, 20 minutes tends to be the average length.

A short film can be live-action, animated, or computer generated. Like feature films, short films tell closed-ended stories with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The best short films have a clear focus and are economical with their storytelling, utilizing only one or two locations and few characters.

How Long Should a Short Film Screenplay Be?

When writing any screenplay, keep in mind that one page equals roughly one minute of screentime. If short films are typically under 50 minutes long, you’ll want a script that’s 50 pages or less.
A good rule of thumb: aim to write a 15-page short film and see where that takes you.

Why Are Short Films Important for Aspiring Filmmakers?

If your goal is to direct, produce, or sell feature-length films, you make think that making short film isn’t valuable. But short films are much more than just exercises from film school: a short film can have various benefits for an aspiring or seasoned filmmaker.

  1. Find representation. Short films can be valuable as a calling card to land other writing or directing work, or to find representation. This is especially true for young screenwriters and directors, who may not have big-budget work on their reels. A short film is easy to distribute and gives busy agents or managers quick insight into a filmmaker’s creative voice and point of view.
  2. Gain visibility. Submitting a short film to a film festival is a great way to gain visibility. Screening your short film at a prestigious festival can raise your profile as a director and get you considered for larger projects. When submitting to a film festival, remember that the shorter the film, the better your chances, as most film festival programmers want to screen as many shorts as possible.
  3. Distribute on your own. Securing distribution of an independent feature film to a wide audience poses significant challenges. Short films, however, are easy to post online and share via sites like Vimeo and YouTube. Keep in mind that you’ll have to do the research to find your target audience.
  4. Secure funding. Many successful short films have been used as proofs of concept for a more ambitious project, helping the screenwriter or director secure funding to adapt them into a full-length feature film or television series. Prominent examples of feature films that began their lives as short films include Whiplash by Damien Chazelle, District 9 by Niell Blomkamp, and Saw by James Wan.
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Step-by-Step Guide for Writing a Short Film

Writing short films boils down to four key steps: brainstorming, outlining, writing, and rewriting.

  1. Brainstorm. If you don’t have an existing concept for a short film, start by throwing any and all story ideas at the wall and see what sticks. Some writing prompts that may help jumpstart your creativity include: What images or events can you clearly remember from childhood? What are the themes you find yourself attracted to in cinema? What are your favorite examples of films in the style or genre that you hope to create? Perhaps you gravitate toward stories about family relationships, love triangles, underdog victories, or particular historical periods. Once you come upon an idea for your short, write down all moments, set-pieces, beats, or bits of dialogue you’d love to see in the film. Don’t worry about whether you’ll actually include these elements, or whether they make sense: just write whatever comes to mind.
  2. Outline. After you’ve narrowed your brainstorming down to a clear and simple premise, begin to outline the film idea. Like feature films, short scripts have a beginning, middle, and end. During the outline phase, your goal is to map out the overall structure of the film, so it’s okay to not know what will happen at every moment. However, some writers find it helpful to know every scene or beat in a film before they start to write it. A beat sheet is a helpful companion to the outlining process. (Learn how to create a beat sheet here.)
  3. Write your first draft. Now that you know the shape of your story, start writing the first draft of your short film script. Short films follow the exact same screenplay structure as feature films do—think of them as short screenplays. A good rule of thumb when writing the script for a short film is to “enter late, and get out early”—in other words, enter each scene as late in the action as you possibly can, and get out as soon you character has gotten what they needed in the scene. You only have so many pages to tell your story: don’t waste time on moments, exchanges, or backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary.
  4. Rewrite the script. There’s a common phrase among writers that “writing is rewriting,” and screenwriting is no exception. Once you have a first draft on the page, give the script to friends or mentors for notes. When you go back to write the second draft, you mind find that you need to restart the process and create a new outline. Once your story is solid, you might only rewrite the script to finesse a scene or refine dialogue.

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3 Tips for Writing a Great Short Film

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In her first-ever online class, Jodie Foster teaches you how to bring stories from page to screen with emotion and confidence.

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While writing a short film may sound straightforward, fitting a complete story into ten or twenty minutes of screen time can be challenging. Here are some tips to help you write a short film successfully.

  1. Focus on a simple premise. A compelling story is at the heart of any short film, but the best short films have a clear, concise, and often very simple premise, which is necessary if you only have minutes to tell your entire story. If possible, give your main character a very specific goal or a short time frame to reach it. For instance, many successful short films are based on a simple premise such as two friends on a bike ride, a woman trying to make a new friend, or a grieving son delivering a eulogy.
  2. Be economical with characters and backstory. Short films don’t have the time to mine through or introduce tons of character backstory. How much information do we actually need about the hero to get on board with their journey? Is it important to know they have an ex-husband? Or is that adding unnecessary detail? As for supporting characters, dual protagonists, or small speaking parts: only write as many characters as is necessary. Is your character being chased by bad guys, or can he be chased by a single bad guy? Ask yourself: if I lose this character, will my main character still achieve their goal? If the answer is “yes,” consider leaving them out of the story.
  3. Keep locations to a minimum. Some of the best short films take place in one room or one location. This is helpful not only in focusing your story, but also in keeping your budget down—a crucial factor if you intend to shoot the film yourself. One example of an award-winning short set in a single location is “Sam Did It,” a 10-minute story that takes place entirely in a morgue operating room. A helpful exercise while you’re brainstorming your short film is to come up with a premise and a single location and ask yourself: “Can I tell this entire story without leaving this location?”

Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?

Whether you’re an aspiring blockbuster director or have dreams of changing the world with your independent film, navigating the world of scripts and screenplays can be daunting. No one knows this better than Jodie Foster. In Jodie Foster’s MasterClass on filmmaking, the two-time Oscar-winner talks about her experience on both sides of the camera and reveals insights into every step of the filmmaking process, from storyboarding to casting and camera coverage.

Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Jodie Foster, Judd Apatow, Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, and more.

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