We’ve all heard it before – your short film is a calling card for your work in your industry. A highlight reel of your best work. Many of us come out of school having made one, or on our way to making one. We often pour our hearts, hopes, souls, and paychecks into their creation. But are they good?
Today we will be analyzing the very first step of making a film: Crafting the script. Below are five major things that help shape a good script into a great script.
*Note: Rules are meant to be broken. There will always be films that make it big that transgress the general rules. But it is also true that the elements below will be found in more successful films than not.
Bow down before this God. Your film must be efficient. What does that mean? The baseline definition follows ” to accomplish something with the least waste of time and effort; competency in performance” (Dictionary.com)
What does that mean for your short film? There must not be a wasted line, useless character or excess action. Every act and every sentence must do one of three things 1) assist in the goal 2) conflict with the goal 3) Pass on crucial information.
Even in comedy, where banter can be a source of humor, that banter must be directed towards the task at hand, and it must resolve with information being passed.
Consider Abbott and Costello’s Iconic “Who’s on First” sketch. This piece is nothing but quick and witty banter about a confused identity, but at the center, both characters are attempting to pass along vital information. Every line either assists that goal, conflicts with that goal, or passes on information.
This is a tricky one. It can be argued that there are no new ideas. And countering against that, film genres like Romantic Comedies have been successfully exploiting the same plot arch for decades. Bottom line: Make sure your idea hasn’t been done before. And if it has, look for a way to get your emotional goals across in a slightly different way.
Research your concept! Has it been done before? If it has, find out how well it worked and why? How can you make your concept be the story you want to tell, without being a story that has already been told.
3. DO NOT SPOON FEED YOUR AUDIENCE
A classic rule of cinema is “show, don’t tell”. Don’t tell us character X is having money problems. SHOW character X’s credit card being declined at the grocery store, show them digging in their pockets for bus money, show them walking past a pile of “urgent” bill notices in their hallway. Trust the audience. They will get it.
4. MAKE US FEEL
Like any true art form, there is some unknowable sense of magic in this element. I once went to a stand-up comedy class where the teacher said, “I cannot make you funny. But if you are funny, I can teach you tricks to make your funnier.” This is, essentially, the same deal. From the most novice writer to the most advanced, this is the jewel of a short film.
Whatever you are writing- comedy, tragedy, drama- we need to care about the character’s goal. We may hate them, we may love them, we may want them to win, we may want them to fail- but we, as the audience, need to want something from the character and their goal.
How exactly does a writer accomplish this? It is a highly subjective debate. But it starts making the character unique and still relatable. If your character is a jerk, they need to be a jerk in a way that everyone in the audience can relate to. If they are unknowable and horribly evil, they need to have a moment early on where they imply their reasons for being evil- and they have to be understandable, even if horrible. (Ex. “There is no good and Evil. Only power and those too weak to seek it”) If they are the dramatic hero, we need to see a human element of the hero within ourselves.
It is a tricky thing to accomplish, but if your work can make us feel, you have accomplished your primary goal.
5. TAKE RISKS! (but educated ones)
Take some risks! Start your piece in the middle of the action. Make your main character a deplorable villain. Leave us on a cliffhanger or twist ending- but make sure these risks are measured, educated and, most importantly, well executed.
Your film should have one major over-arching goal: Leave the viewer with a feeling. You can take chances in your attempts to get there. The only guideline is to make sure those chances work. Want your characters to have a big twist ending? Great! Make sure it works sensibly and clearly, and that twist is air tight.
Short films are their own unique beasts, but a good short film can scream out to the industry that you are a professional who knows your stuff. These five guidelines are good ground rules for anyone taking the initial steps in crafting a film