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6 Tips for Writing Short Film Scripts That Connect

Posted on: August 26, 2020

By Claudia Hunter Johnson, award-winning writer, screenwriter, documentary filmmaker and author of Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect 5e.

There has never been a better time to learn the craft of writing short film scripts. Interest in and access to creating and viewing short films and episodes of series has exploded worldwide, for both TV and the Web. A great short film can also open doors for you in the film industry, which Barry Jenkins discovered with his luminous short film script, My Josephine, written in my screenwriting class at Florida State University.

But writing a successful short screenplay isn’t easy. It requires the craft and concentration of a medieval artist carving scenes in a walnut. So here are six tips for crafting a short screenplay that connects, based on my long experience as a writer and as a screenwriting teacher at the FSU Film School and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Short film script

 1. Find a small, specific, significant idea you can tell well in a short script

This is always, always, the number one problem for my screenwriting students. They come in with big story ideas, often feature-length screenplay ideas, but quickly discover their idea won’t fit or work in the short form. The result is what I call “narrative cram.” The story can’t breathe. So you need an idea that is small, specific, and significant to your main character.

Barry Jenkins told me that the idea for My Josephine came from “an image in my head of two people’s feet dangling over a table. I saw them working the night shift at a twenty-four-hour Laundromat, young and intimate.” But even with this small, simple, significant image as a starting point for a short screenplay, Barry struggled to find a story he could tell well in six pages. At one point he tried to include a murder in the Laundromat, resulting in, yes, narrative cram. A year later, Barry rewrote the script and “made it as simple as I was capable as a writer,” he told me. When I read his rewrite, I was so moved I only wrote three words on the script—“Lovely and subtle.” As is his beautiful film.

Craft a Complex Character With a Small, Significant Want

2. Craft a complex character with a small, significant want

Writing compelling short screenplays requires what Thornton Wilder called “shortcuts to the imagination.” And knowing what your main character wants in your story is the most important shortcut to understanding and revealing who your main character is. So give your main character a want or yearning for something that matters deeply to her or him. Then let your story flow out of your character’s efforts to achieve this want. The best stories, short or long, are about the human heart.

Create a pattern of external and internal change

3. Create a pattern of external and internal change

It’s helpful to think of a screenplay as a pattern of significant human change that you create with specific moments of change—discoveries and decisions your main character makes that make a difference to the character and move the story forward. What your character wants and is trying to achieve in your short script is the surface action—events we see happen on screen. And how these events change the character’s inner landscape forever is the deep action—your character’s arc.

If you want to see an exquisitely crafted surface and deep action/character arc in a fifteen-page screenplay, read Chapter 17 'Killer Kart' in Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect 5e and screen the film on the book’s website. It’s no surprise the film is the most-screened film ever produced at the FSU Film School.

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Start your story on page one

4. Start your story on page one

It’s also helpful way to think of a screenplay as an energy system, as William Gibson so brilliantly says in Shakespeare’s Game. The energy system begins with the Inciting Incident—a significant event/discovery that unleashes the energy system—and ends at the Climax—the moment when the outcome of the story is known and the energy system comes to an end. So given the limited number of pages you have in a short script, it’s especially important to make sure your Inciting Incident occurs on page one.

Hit your scenes late and get out early

5. Hit your scenes late and get out early

Scenes are the “bonework of drama,” as William Gibson also so brilliantly says. So it’s helpful to think of your scenes as the time and place where a significant moment of change occurs that throws your screenplay into the next scene and moves your story forward. That is your purpose when you write a scene, to dramatize the moment (or moments) of change. That is what matters. I like to think of a scene as the oyster and the moment of change as the pearl. Then cut into your scenes as close to the moment of change as you can and get out as soon after as possible.

I got this, really got this, as a young playwright when Actors Theatre of Louisville commissioned me to write a ten-minute play. And I did—in six scenes that I hit late and left early, each with a small but significant moment of change that moved the story on to the next scene. “A tender and effortless glissando sweeping gracefully from moment to wistful moment,” as The Los Angeles Times said in my all-time favorite review. And, finally . . .

Show Don't Tell

6. Show don’t tell

It’s the oldest adage in the writing world but the truest when it comes to screenwriting. Film is a visual medium, and your job as a screenwriter is to make the film happen in the mind of the reader. So as you write your short screenplay, ask yourself over and over, “How will the viewer know this?” Then find economical and evocative ways to let the viewer/reader hear or see what you want them to know. Learn to render photographable human behavior that reveals inner emotional states.

This article was cited from Crafting Short Screen Plays That Connect 5e, by Claudia Hunter Johnson.

Further Techniques To Writing Short Screenplays

Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect

If you enjoyed reading this article, Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect 5e will show you how to advance and deepen your screenwriting skills, increasing your ability to write richer, more resonant short screenplays that will connect with your audience.

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