Writing a Short Film: Part 1
I’m writing a short film for my senior thesis this year, so I thought I would share the journey with everyone! Film has been something that I’ve loved to dabble in all my life. I remember being ten years old and filming my first short film on an iPod Touch. It was called Psycho Santa, and we still like to wax poetic about the writing and filming process. I’m sure it wasn’t as good as we like to pretend it was, but it was really what got me started in filmmaking. Any writer can write a script. Actually, I take that back. Anyone can write a script, but I’ve found that a lot of writers have a problem translating their work to film because they forget film is a visual art. You have to be able to convey action and emotion in a visual way, rather than through words. It’ll be weird at first. I still end up writing stage directions that are way too long, but ultimately you have to let the camera and your actors tell the story. It’ll be difficult to hear people speaking your dialogue and seeing your film is always a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment, but it’s worth the process.
The first step of any project is planning. In this stage, working on your film won’t feel too different from any other writing project. Characterization, world-building, and plotting make up the basics of writing a short film, just like they would writing a novel or short story.
Step 1: Brainstorming
I still brainstorm whether I have an idea or not. When writing my film, the only idea I had was this teenager who was obsessed with Percy Shelley and his death. Though that original idea didn’t really happen in the film (there was still a fair amount of Percy Shelley though), I used the idea of poetry as inspiration. If I don’t have an idea to build on, I’ll either make a playlist or a mood board to capture the emotion or feeling I’m going for. As you probably all know, Pinterest is fantastic for making mood boards and is great for discovering images. Usually, what I try to do is collect images that make me feel a certain way so I can come back to these when I’m filming as a guide to recreating that same feeling. Music is also extremely helpful when trying to capture a mood. Spotify has fantastic mood playlists that I sometimes use, or I’ll just make my own. After brainstorming, I continue on planning as usual. As you probably know by now, I love character interviews and worldbuilding questions to help flesh out my story. If you have some semblance of a plot, think of a key question that will guide your story- Can people be forgiven? Can you repeat the past? Is it possible to ever be satisfied? This question will not only help you build your story but will also help you develop themes as you progress.
Step 2: Scene Planning
Once again, this is similar to how you would plan out scenes for writing a novel. Once you have a rough idea of your plot (or even just a concept), it’s time to start planning. Figure out where breaks in your plot naturally occur, or if you’re not to that point yet, I’d suggest writing a paragraph or two about what happens in your film to get your creative juices flowing. My favorite way to outline anything is creating a scene list. I make a list of scenes in whatever project I’m working on and then describe what happens in them, so I can’t get stuck when I’m writing later on (But trust me, I always get stuck). My scene list for Turncoats (my current WIP) looks something like this:
- Benjamin, along with his company, encounters a group of Ephrean mercenaries, loyal to the Queen, and they are attacked. Benjamin is shot, and his horse carries him to a strange cabin in the woods. Benjamin wakes up to find that his wound has been cared for. It turns out that the cabin belongs to a girl his age, Hadiya, who greets him with a crossbow. She informs him that she would like to help the rebel army, but Benjamin declines, knowing that the General doesn’t enlist woman. He flees her house after the Ephrean mercenaries approach her door.
- Hadiya answers the door, knowing that the Ephrean mercenaries are behind it. She is nervous because she is from the outskirts of the Jephra Desert and the Uka Forest, places that the Queen has deemed savage. She knows she looks different from the soldiers and they are bound to notice. The Ephrean mercenaries ask her if she has seen any rebel soldiers and she shakes her head, pretending she cannot speak the language of Olsany. They beat her, and leave her bleeding in her house on the floor.
That’s more than you have to do, though. For the short film I’m working on right now, my scene list looked like this:
- Reminiscent of the opening of The Trial. Louise and Percy throw rocks at Jo’s window. They barge into her room, wake her up and bring her to the treehouse. Setting: interior, Jo’s bedroom.
Your scene list can be as detailed as you want it to be. There is no right or wrong way to do this since it is just supposed to help you when writing. If you enjoy writing without an outline, a bare bones scene list may work better for you, since it allows you to be a little more creative in the actual writing process. If you’re a no-surprises kind of person, then a more detailed scene list will let you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
Step 3: Writing
Once you have an idea for your story and have finished your characterization and worldbuilding, it’s time to start writing, so put on your mood playlist from step one, look over your scene list, and get to work!
Just like in writing, your opening scene is crucial. You need to catch your viewers’ attention or risk them not watching the rest of your film. Remember, it’s okay if your opening shot is of the mundane, but you must ensure that you find a way to make the mundane interesting. Nobody wants to watch a shot of your protagonist washing the dishes, but if the doorbell rings while their washing the dishes, then you’ve piqued your audience’s attention. Who’s at the door? They’ll keep watching to find out. However, you have to be careful to not reveal too much information in the first scene. You don’t want to confuse your viewers with too many characters or too much dialogue. Present enough information to interest your viewers and adequately set up your story, but nothing more. I’ve heard this rule described as the mini-skirt rule- Make sure it’s long enough to cover everything but short enough to keep it interesting- if that helps you remember it.
Describe your settings immaculately. Don’t say: She enters Bella’s bedroom. Try: She enters Bella’s bedroom, the walls a bright blue, adorned with concert posters. Directly in front of her, sits Bella on her bed, laying on a black and white polka-dotted quilt. To her left is a bookshelf crammed with every book imaginable, and to her right, a beat-up acoustic guitar is leaning against her wall. There is a desk next to her bookshelf with half-drawn sketches piled on top. Christmas lights snake their way around the room. Which description gave us more information about Bella? In the first, we learn that Bella has a bedroom. In the second, we can infer that Bella is an artsy teenager due to her bookshelf, guitar, sketches, and concert posters. Also, by describing your settings in detail in your script, you won’t have to scramble to dress your set or search for props when filming. You’ll know exactly what you need, which can save time later on.
You’ve heard of show-don’t-tell, but this is especially important in film. Never use dialogue when an image would be more powerful. Don’t say have John tell us he’s a doctor. Show him in a lab coat. Let your viewers infer information through images. Film isn’t theater. It isn’t an art where dialogue has to convey exposition. Always use images for exposition, and use dialogue for exposition sparingly. This also applies to voice-over. Voice-over is commonly considered to be a lazy way to share information and they are sort of like the prologues of the film world. However, just like prologues, voice-overs can be successful, but I tend to stay away from them.
You don’t have paragraphs to explain your character’s feelings like you do when writing a novel. You have reactions. This is where writing stage directions can get a little tricky. What you shouldn’t say: Bella leaves her house, angry and sad over her argument with her mother. Try: Bella slams the door as she exits her house. Once again, you are letting your viewers infer that Bella is upset through her slamming the door. Actions are your number one tool to convey emotion in scriptwriting. By explaining in detail what a character is thinking or feeling you are not only creating something that is hard to translate to film, but also limiting your actor’s choices and insulting your viewer’s intelligence. When acting, it’s common to pick verbs to describe your character’s goals. For example,
Michael is standing with his hand on the doorknob. He is about to leave.
You never loved me!
What is Bella’s goal in this situation? It could be a number of things, especially since there is no context to this piece of dialogue, but to me, I thought that her line could be a desperate attempt to get Michael to stay, or an attempt to get him to feel bad about leaving. Throw could be used to describe my first guess, as she is throwing information at him to make him stay, or tear could be used because she is trying to break him down through guilting him. This can be used in writing too as a reminder to use action to convey emotions and not stage direction or dialogue. Action verbs will keep your script from becoming dull with too much dialogue and also help you discover your character’s motivations.
Give Your Locations a Workout!
Have your characters interact with their settings and not just exist in them. Let’s go back to Bella’s bedroom. She’s having a conversation with her mom about how she doesn’t want to become a doctor while sitting on her bed. Okay, that’s fine. We get that she doesn’t want to become a doctor. Now, let’s have her idly picking her guitar while that same conversation happens. Now your viewers will get the impression that she doesn’t want a career in medicine because she wants a career in music. You never had to say she wanted a career in music, you just had to give her a guitar. Let’s change Bella’s action. Now she’s sitting at her desk drawing, having the same conversation with her mom. Now your viewers will infer that she wants to be an artist and not a doctor. This once again goes back to the golden rule of film-making, show-don’t-tell. Interactions with the setting can give exposition, change the tone of a scene, and most importantly, keep the scene from getting boring.
Once you’ve finished writing all your scenes, go back and reread them. Are they starting at the best moment? Starting in-media-res has been a trend lately, but it helps keep the story moving, as you aren’t wasting time with unnecessary exposition and dialogue. Also, make sure the ending of your scenes will make the viewers want to continue watching. Think of the ending of each scene as a mini cliff-hanger. End on an interesting line of dialogue, image, or action to keep your viewers interested. One great thing about film is that pacing can be fixed in editing, and sometimes it’s easier to pace your film when you have finished scenes.
I don’t like to wrap everything up in my endings, but that’s just me. If you’re the type of person who wants everything explained, then go for it! Remember your key question from Step 1? To make an impression on your viewers, you have to answer it here. You don’t have to give a straight answer, but you have to wrap up your story and themes through your question. There are plenty of stories that end ambiguously- the first one that comes to mind is The Great Gatsby. What exactly does “so we beat on” mean? If you’re writing an ambiguous ending, then you have to know what it means, but you shouldn’t share that information with your viewer. Let them figure it out for themselves; it makes for a more fulfilling experience. After all, the most fun I had reading The Great Gatsby was coming up with multiple meanings for that final page. Once you put your art into the world, whatever it meant to you no longer means anything. It is then interpreted through each one of your audience members, taking on a new meaning for each person who experiences it. Let your story’s meaning change. It’ll be more powerful that way.
My next post will be on pre-production, including location scouting, casting, and more! I hope that this series is helpful for anyone who is thinking about making their own short film. If you’ve ever made a short film or are thinking about writing one, let me know in the comments!