Archive for the ‘short screenplays’ Category

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Last month I was in beautiful St. John’s, Newfoundland for the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival’s “Scene and Heard.

St. John’s, on the most Eastern part of Canada,  affectionately known as “the rock,” and a three hour flight from Toronto is home to an amazing group of incredibly talented filmmakers. I was fortunate to meet many of them during a workshop on writing short films and in a dozen one-on-one script consultations. I also moderated a panel on adaptations with award winning filmmakers Barbara Doran and Deanne Foley and novelist Kevin Major which led to conversations about what it takes to find the right project to adapt and the importance of emotionally connecting to your material.

I was also fortunate to be able to see a screening of selected short films by local filmmakers, pick up some truffles from the Newfoundland Chocolate Company and get a fabulous Scene and Heard t-shirt but skipped the cod cheeks (don’t ask!). St. John’s is a very special city with a wonderful, close knit community of writers, directors, and producers and I was truly honored to be part of this year’s “Scene and Heard.”

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I recently watched a wonderful short film that hit home the importance of a strong dramatic question that hooks the audience.

Mission directed by Mark Buchanan and written by Gregor Barclay opens with a young boy trying out for the soccer team. This is intercut with his father undergoing a rigorous series of tests in hope of being an astronaut on the next mission to Mars. Both are denied. Back at home dad’s unable to deal with the rejection and with the mission just a few short hours from blasting off builds his own space capsule in the living room. Leaving his son to fend for himself he holes up for the duration of the 200 day mission.

And with this we’re hooked into the story because we want to know what’s going to happen to both father and son. But even before this we want to know what’s wrong with dad, what he’s building and what he plans on doing once he’s inside the capsule. It’s not until the very final moments of the film that we come to understand what’s transpired to bring dad to this breaking point and the final voice over is particularly poignant. The piece is ultimately very moving and beautifully shot. But what makes it work as well as is does is the dramatic questions it raises that keep us fully engaged and invested in the outcome.

You can watch Mission on Vimeo here.

Dramatic questions are a vital part of a successful screenplay – whether short or feature length. So what is a dramatic question? Simply put – it’s the central question the story raises that we want to have answered. Dramatic questions hook us into the story and keep us emotionally engaged through to the end. For example in The King’s Speech we’re drawn through the story to find out how Albert is going to overcome his stammer. In Saving Mr. Banks we want to know how P. L. Travers comes to sell the rights to Mary Poppins. In Her we’re invested in the story to find out how Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is going to work out. In Argo we want to know if the hostages will make it out of Iran. In The Hangover it’s will they find the groom and in The Heat we want to know if Ashburn and Mullins will put aside their differences long enough to bust the drug ring.

Sometimes a story will raise multiple questions – external that drive the plot and internal which are part of the protagonist’s overall arc. For example in Silver Linings Playbook we want to know if Pat and Tiffany will get together but also if Pat is going to be able to stay the course and learn to manage his mental illness. In Midnight in Paris we’re invested in the story to see if Gil will leave his wife, stay in the past, find romance with Adriana and write his novel. In Up we want to know if Carl will make it to Paradise Falls, connect with Russell and reconcile the loss of his wife. We even see this in ensembles like Little Miss Sunshine where we want to know if Olive will make it to the pageant but also how our family will heal their disconnect. Mission does this as well raising several questions that escalate over the course of the story.

Establishing dramatic questions that drive the story forward is key to a successful script. They serve to hook the reader and keep them invested in the outcome ensuring their desire to know the answer will have them reading to the very last page.

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In my last post I took a look at the unique aspects of writing short film characters. In this post I want to touch on short screenplay structure. Obviously the big difference between a short and a feature is length. While shorts can vary in length (generally no longer than 50 minutes) they still follow the traditional three act structure with some special considerations.

• Time Frame
One of the key things that separates a feature from a short is time frame. Shorts simply don’t have time for the story to unfold over several days or long passages of time. This means short screenplays are generally one moment in time or happen over the course of several hours though occasionally they can take place one or two days (ie: overnight).

• Structure – 3 Acts
Even though a short screenplay is, well, shorter it still needs to have a beginning, middle and end – essentially three acts.

• Set up – Act One
The first act sets up your main character. The challenge in a short film is that this needs to be done in one or two quick beats (hence no elaborate backstory or exposition). This means we need to rely on a visual shorthand to convey information about them. While we don’t want to revert to stereotypes or cliché think of ways to communicate who your protagonist is visually and through one or two specific actions or character traits. These first few beats also set up the main character’s current situation and the world of the story.

While we want to tell the story visually opening with a montage or a slow build of images before we meet our characters works in a feature not in a short. Come into the story as if it’s already in progress rather than having to do a lot of explaining as to why we’re here.

• Inciting Incident
Given the shorter length of a short film screenplay you have less time to get to your inciting incident – the one main beat that kick starts the story. The inciting incident sends the story in a new direction, it’s the problem your protagonist needs to deal with and propels them into action in response. A good inciting incident raises questions about what’s going to happen next.

• Plot – Act Two
Key in all films and particularly in a short is having clear focused action that drives the story forward with energy and tension. The way to do this is through the protagonist’s goal. This goal is the protagonist’s response to the inciting incident. It’s vital that this goal, even if it’s something internal, sparks our protagonist to do something active. The protagonist’s actions drive the plot so whatever they want needs to translate into some kind of action that moves the story forward. In other words – something needs to happen! In a feature the second act is the longest (generally 60 pages) and involves multiple beats including a mid-point twist. In a short we don’t have time to see this kind of progression or escalation so we need to focus on the key moments we need to move our protagonist forward. In a five-seven minute short this may only be 3-4 beats.

In general try to avoid moving the story forward through a lot of talking and dialogue exchanges. Shorts collapse under the weight of this kind of thing because there isn’t enough time to offset them with action. It’s very easy to end up with five minutes of talking and no action. So find ways of having your protagonist pursue their goal actively and visually.

• Conflict
As the protagonist tries to achieve their goal they need to run into conflict. Our investment in their struggle to achieve what they want creates tension and suspense and keeps us hooked. Conflict comes in many forms. For example it can be a specific antagonist, the environment or something more personal and internal. Conflict creates a problem for our protagonist to overcome. It drives the plot and is a key element in ensuring the piece feels active and engaging.

• Resolution – Act Three
In order for your short screenplay to have impact it’s important that your piece end in a satisfying way. What this means will vary depending on the kind of piece you’re writing. For some this beat will lead to humor for others this will be an emotional or heart wrenching conclusion. Regardless what’s important here is that we feel there’s been some kind of shift or change. Keep in mind that in a short film it’s very difficult to have a character make a huge shift ie: from suburban mom to serial killer so look for smaller, meaningful changes that can be articulated in a short period of time. This is also where you can use your protagonist’s arc to tell the audience what your story is about. Generally what your main character learns tells us what the theme is. This is your point of view as a writer. It’s why you’re telling this story and why we care about watching it. (You can find more on theme here.)

Some thoughts on PRODUCTION

While you’re writing it’s helpful to keep production in mind and ensure you’re writing a piece that is actually shootable within the time and budget you have available. This means avoid huge set pieces and action sequences, special FX, scenes involving a lot of extras or unobtainable/expensive locations. Consider using props, locations and settings that are already available to you and keep locations to a minimum to avoid having a lot of company moves.

When writing your short screenplay strive to entertain, engage and move people. Hitchcock said, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out” keep this in mind when writing.

Short screenplays present some unique storytelling challenges but a successful short script can be very effective and deliver the kind of punch features can’t. Be brave. Be bold. And tell your story in fifty minutes or less!

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Many of my clients write short screenplays and last year I helped develop nine short scripts for Film Independent’s Project:Involve seven of which were greenlit and showcased at the Los Angeles Film Festival. One of these, To the Bone written by Erin Li and Silka Luisa, has been accepted to Slamdance.  We’re gearing up for this year’s program so short films are on my mind.

Shorts are a great way to develop your writing skills and can be an excellent calling card if produced. Short film screenplays are a unique form of storytelling that are not simply pared down features but have their own specific rules and structure. Because they are short they have the ability to deliver a quick, powerful emotional punch. In many ways this gives them greater impact than a feature which has to tease out the same affect over 90+ minutes. In order to write an effective short film it helps to be aware of the aspects of screenwriting that are unique to short films. Here are some character guidelines to keep in mind (my next post will take a look at structure).

• Protagonist’s Goal
Even in a short the plot of the story is driven by what the protagonist wants. This is their goal. As in a feature their goal needs to be compelling, urgent and something we can get behind. We want to emotionally engage the audience so they are invested in the story and want to see the outcome. This doesn’t mean their goal has to be big like saving the world. Sometimes smaller, more internal goals have greater emotional impact partly because they are more relatable.

• Backstory
The challenge in creating a compelling character in a short is you don’t have the luxury of 30 pages to set up your protagonist for the audience. Depending on the length of your short you have only a handful of pages and sometimes even less. This means you don’t have time for elaborate backstory or exposition (which is like a dead weight in a short). So how do you convey important information about your character? Economically, visually and through action and relationships. If there is something we must know about your character’s past or current situation then find ways to convey this with a visual reference. This could be something in the setting, a unique visual attribute (clothes, hair) or gesture. We learn the most about a character through their actions. So what they are actually doing and who they are doing it with tells us a lot. This is your toolbox. Use it to tell us about your character economically without having to involve a whole lot of backstory and exposition which you don’t have time for.

• Protagonist’s Arc
Even in a short screenplay the main character needs to grow and change over the course of the story. Unlike a feature you don’t have 90 pages to develop and arc a character so the shift they make needs to be smaller and not feel like a huge leap. Big changes are just too much to incorporate in such a short time. So what you’re looking for here are protagonists who have shifts in perspective, see things in a new light, and undertake a new or different action. They may have a shift based on the consequences of their actions or we might see a change in their relationships as a result what’s occurred in the story.

Of course this comes with its own challenge which is that these smaller shifts tend to be more internal than external so the trick here is to find visual ways of externalizing the internal change.

• Secondary Characters
While a feature length narrative may have myriad characters a short film needs to focus on the protagonist and a limited number of secondary characters. These are your antagonists, love interests, best friends, parents, boss, co-workers etc. There just isn’t enough time to service more than three-four secondary characters (generally less) and it’s important to decide what characters you absolutely need in order to tell your story. Key here is incorporating secondary characters whose relationship with the protagonist  helps us to understand who they are, their goal and their transformation.  For example the main character’s relationship with their sibling/parent/friend  can tell us whether they are kind, helpful, disconnected, emotionally aloof, self involved etc. traits that would be hard to establish without seeming them in relationship with another character.

• Theme
Knowing what your story is about and what you are trying to say as a writer is vital even in a short screenplay. One of the ways to think about this is what your protagonist learns over the course of the story tells us what the piece is really about. Once again this doesn’t need to be a huge, earth shaking idea or shift but it needs to be clear and we need to understand your point of view and why you’re telling this particular story. Using the protagonist to convey the theme is an effective way to do this. Shorts that are “about” something are more likely to connect with the audience and resonate more deeply.

If you’ve written a short I’d love to hear your comments, ideas and suggestions.