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May 24, 2022

How To Write a Short Film

Is writing a full-length script daunting? It doesn't have to be. However, if you've never written a script before and want to try your hand at it, writing a short film might be for you. 

Crafting a short film is a great way to explore what goes into writing and editing a script, and you might even get your short film made, giving you an understanding of life on a production. 

What are the main differences between writing a short film and a full-length movie script? Let's dive in. 

What is a short film?

A short film is generally between 20 and 50 minutes long that tells a simple, self-contained story, usually in one location and with minimal characters and set design. 

One example is the highly acclaimed The Red Balloon, first released in 1956. The 35-minute film follows a Parisian boy who discovers a helium balloon on his way to school that has a mind of its own. 

A still from the short film, The Red Balloon.
The Red Balloon is an award-winning short film from 1956.

Short films can be shorter than the 20-minute mark. Pixar short films that appear before the main feature in cinemas are generally around 3 minutes; think For the Birds, which premiered before the 2001 full-length animation Monsters Inc. This film received an Oscar for best animated short film in the same year. 

Short films are generally seen as a way into the industry. 

Some short films closer to the 50-minute mark can then be expanded upon and turned into full-length movies. 

Why should you write a short film?

Short films are more likely to be greenlit than big feature films. The fewer characters and small sets reduce the need for a big budget creating more opportunities all-round.  

If you've never had anything commissioned before, a short film can be an excellent place to get some experience on set. You will see how something goes from the page to the screen, and you will be able to apply this to future scripts. 

Writing a short film is something to mention when you pitch a full-length movie to a studio or agent; they will appreciate the experience you have on set.

You may well make a small sum of money from a short film if it is sold commercially, likely to be your first paycheck from the film world.

Writing a short film requires considering the same skill set as a feature film. It must have a solid three or five-act structure, and your characters must be fully developed, a skill that will stand you in good stead when you come to write your first full-length picture. 

However, it must not be too ambitious. Trying to tell too big a story in a short film will overload the viewer. This forces you to be concise and carefully consider every piece of dialogue and action.  

How does the production process differ?

If you are writing a short script, you are most likely to be working on an independent production set that isn't attached to Hollywood or any major streaming services. This means the budget and crew are likely to be smaller; you may even find that this is a director's first film. Perhaps it has been self-funded or crowdfunded. 

As a result, you are more likely to be called upon to chip into other aspects of the production process. You will likely be consulted more, and you may well have a greater say over camera angles and how your film is shot. You may even have to take care of additional tasks like lining your film and compiling a shooting script that would otherwise fall to the cinematographer. 

The upside is you get more experience, but the downside is that it's more work for much less money. You may find the production is not as professional as a big film. Clashes are more familiar with fewer defined roles, and you could find yourself unhappy with the final product.

Photo of men holding a camera.
You can either hire a team or be your own cinematographer for your short film.

However, advanced filming equipment is becoming more widely available and cheaper to the general market. More independent short films than ever before are being sold to streaming services or put on YouTube, where they make big money through ad revenue. The Hollywood model is declining; agents and directors are often criticized for gatekeeping and blocking genuine talent that doesn't meet its increasingly narrow agenda. 

Writing a short film and producing it independently is a chance to forge a new path in the industry that didn't exist even ten years ago.  

Where do short films air?

Short films generally don't get released in mainstream cinemas unless they are attached as a freebie with a big movie. If short films get a cinema release, you are more likely to see them at an art-house venue. The distribution - the number of cinemas the film is played at - can be minimal. 

If a short film was locally produced, it would generally only get a limited run at local arthouse cinemas. 

However, the film industry does celebrate short films at short film festivals. Awards are usually given out for the best short films, and it's a chance for big names to come together and network with new talent. 

Sundance Film Festival offers a short film category.

Short film festivals are seen as a showcase for independent screenwriters and directors hoping to impress the industry with their work. 

Some of the most prestigious short film festivals include:

Winning an award at one of these film festivals can put you in a good position to pitch a full-length feature since you are now an established or upcoming name in the industry. 

Writing a short film step-by-step

Now you know what a short film can do for your career; how do you go about writing a short film, and how does it differ from writing a full-length blockbuster? And how do you come up with short film ideas? 

Research

Since short films don't get a wide cinema release, you might not have much of a handle on what's popular at the moment. 

Be sure to watch as many short films as you can before you embark on the journey of writing yours. What genres are working well and why? 

Generally, short films rely more on tone, style, and mise-en-scene to get across their message rather than complex stories, as time constraints limit them. There is an opportunity to think deeply about symbolism and subtext here that wouldn't necessarily work in a full-length film.

Consider the audience. Who is watching short films? Where are these films being shown? Can you appeal to this audience as well?  

Plot your film 

Like all films, you need to plan your screenplay to ensure a coherent structure. The best way to do that is to plan out before you start writing. But how do you outline a short film?

Outline your film

Arc Studio Pro can assist you in this process. It includes outlining templates and plot boards for all major structures

If you're going to be directing and producing your short film, you can also storyboard it out scene-by-scene

Determine story structure

Consider first what structure your short film will take. The three or five-act structures will naturally be shorter than in full-length movies, but they must still contain an exposition, a central problem or conflict, a rising action, and a resolution of that conflict.

Write out character arcs for all of your major characters. As this is a short film, it's best to stick to just two or three characters. The exposition will be more straightforward since we don't have much time to include background details. 

A closed room drama is a great structure to consider. This is where all of your drama takes place in one location. This could be a sitting room in an apartment or house where all of your characters live. 

Flesh out your script  

Now you've got a plan or outline in place; it's time to start writing. Generally, a page per minute rule still stands, so your script should be between around 20 - 55 pages. 

Write every day. You can finish up your first draft in around one to two months if you write a page per day or half this if you write two pages a day. 

Industry-standard software like Arc Studio Pro will take the stress out of writing with its shortcut feature to allow you to format as you go along. However, you can consider writing on Google Docs or Microsoft Word. We have a free template to enable you to do this.

Perfect your screenplay 

Fine-tune your screenplay so that it's good as you can make it. Next, seek some professional help to improve it. Finally, you can play for editorial consultations. 

Alternatively, you can network within the industry and make some genuine connections who may be willing to give you feedback, especially on a short script that isn't as big of a time commitment as a full-length feature.

Attend courses online and in-person, and hang out at the major international film festivals to see who you might meet. You will also be exposed to several short films that can give you inspiration and ideas for refining your script. 

How to proceed 

One of the great things about writing a screenplay in 2022 is the myriad of options available to you for getting it out there. Here are some options you might want to consider. 

Apply for funding or make it yourself

There are many funding bodies and grants you can apply for, which will give you the budget to produce and direct the film yourself. In an independent film, the roles of director and producer don't need to be clearly defined; you can do these yourself, hire some actors and enact your vision. 

Following this, you can then attempt to sell your film to a streaming platform or try to have it screened at the local art-house cinema.

Link up with a director

Find a passionate and aspiring director or producer in your local area and see if they would be interested in directing your film for you.

You could agree on a revenue share model, especially if it's their first film, and you can both work on it for no fee. 

Be sure to find somebody you enjoy working with, who you think will do a good job and who understands your vision. A bad working relationship is sure to end in disaster, and you can end up being distracted from the process of directing a great film. 

Build your own audience: Post it on YouTube or Vimeo

The internet means that you can put it in front of an audience as soon as your film is finished. You might be concerned that YouTube means people can watch your movie for free but remember, the more subscribers and views you get, the more revenue you generate from ads. 

For this model to be successful, you may need to break up your film into serialized segments or post other regular content that your audience may enjoy, such as behind-the-scenes or inspirational advice about how you made your films. 

The crowdfunding model

Once you've built an audience that is engaged with your work and loves your films, you can persuade them to invest in you. For example, services like Go Fund Me, Patreon, or Buy Me a Coffee enables users who love your work to donate to your next project. 

Build your platform on social media or hire a content team to do it for you and persuade them to invest in you. You could even use crowdfunding to help you turn your short film into a full-length feature. 

The traditional route 

The traditional route to getting your short film out there is to find an agent to represent you who can then generate interest for your short film amongst directors and executives. A short film is easy to digest and is less of a risk: it's, therefore, less constrained by the politics of Hollywood as millions of dollars are not at stake. 

Get working on your short film today

A short film has so much potential to boost your writing career. Writing one is generally less work enabling you to practice writing a full-length blockbuster. 

With less at stake, you might also find it easy to get your short film made, giving you invaluable experience on a film set.

Arc Studio Pro can assist you in every step of the process of writing and producing a short film, making it easier than it ever has before. So what are you waiting for?

Get writing today! 

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How To Write a Short Film
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

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Writer/Director "Role Models"