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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Jodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking

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?

There is no Hollywood rulebook that says how long a short film must be, but generally speaking, a short film is a motion picture up to 50 minutes long (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 script, keep in mind that one page equals roughly one minute of screentime. If short films are typically under 50 minutes long, you don’t want a script that’s longer than 50 pages. A good rule of thumb is aim to write a 15 page short film and see where that takes you.

Does a Short Film Need to Have Dialogue?

A good short film does not need dialogue. Since film is a visual medium, it’s possible to tell a complex story with images, gestures, and expressions. Short films make some of the best silent films, like the Oscar-winning animated short “Bao,” which has no dialogue but masterfully tells a complete story through the character’s behavior, actions, and emotions.

What’s the Difference Between Animated and Live-Action Short Films?

An animated short film allows certain freedoms in storytelling that may be limitations in live-action works. The key difference between the two is that live-action films are typically a collaboration between the writer and a director, while animated films are a collaboration between the writer and the animators. It’s very common for writers to also direct their live-action short film, but if you plan on making an animated short, you need to be prepared to hire an animator if illustration or design isn’t in your skill set

What Is the Importance of Short Films to a Filmmaker’s Career?

Short films are much more than just exercises from film school—there are various benefits to creating and screening your own short works.

  1. Find representation. Short films are used as a calling card to land other writing or directing work, or to find representation. A young director may not have big-budget work on his or her reel; a short film is easy to distribute and gives agents, managers, or other reps quick insights into the 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 at a prestigious festival opens you up to finding representation. If your goal is to get into a film festival, the shorter the film the better, as most film festival programmers want to screen as many shorts as possible. You could also distribute the short on your own, for example by posting it online, but you’ll have to do the research to find your target audience.
  3. Secure funding. Some successful short films were used as proof-of-concepts and helped the director secure funding for a larger project, like adapting the short into a feature film. Damien Chazelle did this with Whiplash.

3 Tips for Writing a Short Film

  • 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. Giving your main character a very specific goal or a short time frame to reach their goal is helpful. Some writers like to limit themselves to only one location to help narrow down the story. Many successful short films have very simple premises like, two friends on a bike ride, a woman trying to make a new friend, or a grieving son delivering a eulogy.
  • Be economical with characters and backstory. Try to get as much information out about your main character as quickly as possible, but recognize that 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 just a single bad guy? Always ask yourself, if I lose this character, will my main character still achieve their goal, and if the answer is “yes,” you can lose that character.
  • Keep the locations to a minimum. Some of the best short films take place in one room or one location. Not only is this helpful if you intend to shoot the script and plan on having a low budget production, but limiting the number of locations helps focus the story. The short film “Sam Did It” is 10-minutes long and takes place entirely in a morgue operating room. A helpful exercise while you’re brainstorming your short film, come up with a premise and a single location and ask yourself, “can I tell this entire story without leaving this location?”

Step-by-Step Guide for Writing a Short Film

  1. Brainstorm. Start by brainstorming ideas for your short. Throw any and all story ideas at the wall and see what sticks. Some topic starter conversations that can help you hone your search include: What images or events can you clearly remember from childhood? What are the themes you find yourself attracted to in cinema? Perhaps you gravitate toward stories about family relationships, love triangles, underdog victories, or particular historical periods.Once you come upon the central idea for the 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 or not you’ll actually include that dialogue or if that scene make sense, just write whatever comes to mind.
  2. Outline. After you have a clear and simple premise, start to outline the film idea. Like feature films, short scripts have a beginning, middle, and end. During the outline phase, the goal is to map out the structure of the film, so it’s okay to not have an idea of every single scene. However, some writers find it helpful to know every scene, moment, 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 the script. Now that you know the shape of your story, start writing 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,” which means to enter the scene as late as you possible can and get out as soon you character got 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. And rewrite the script. There’s a common phrase among writers that “writing is rewriting.” Once you have a first draft on the page, give the script to your friends or mentors for notes. When you go back in for the second draft, you mind find that you need to restart the process and create a new outline. If that happens, that means there’s a problem with your overall story. Once your story is solid, you might only rewrite the script to finesse a scene or refine dialogue.

Learn how Jodie Foster writes a short film here.