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.
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!