So You've Got A Short Film Idea, What's Next?
You have the seed of an idea. Perhaps a character. You may have even come up with the inciting incident for you film. Your character meets someone or something and this is the beginning of your story.
What do you do now? How do you take this idea and turn it into a plot for a film?
It’s important to remember that even though all films must have a beginning, middle and end, short films are a little different.
We are all used to watching feature films from the moment we’re old enough to watch Disney movies. This means that when we try to write a short film, we are often stuffing the format of a feature down into a short.
Short films often are best when they revolve around a single moment in time. For example:
A mother losing and then finding her child. This could take place in one space, say a market square or even in the house and in real time it could take 10 minutes. But to that mother it feels like hours and your job as the filmmaker is to get the audience to feel everything that mother would feel in those 10 minutes.
It’s powerful, it’s dramatic and it gets into the drama quickly. It’s cheap because you’re not using a million locations and it doesn’t need a whole bunch of actors to work.
So make sure your idea works in the moment.
Maybe your idea starts with your character coming across something. A door or a mysterious parcel. Think about what happens next.
Maybe the parcel belongs to someone else who is looking for it. What could happen if that’s the case? Maybe this person turns up and demands their parcel back and is aggressive when he or she sees it has been picked up by someone else. Maybe it makes them sad and they reveal something about themselves to the other character. In the case of your character coming across a door, there are many possibilities. They could go through it. They try to but it’s locked. If it’s locked what would make them want to open that door? This is where you need to set up the story. Maybe there is something this character really needs on the other side of the door and they will do anything to get through it. Perhaps they have to search the nearby surroundings for a key BUT they must find the key before a certain deadline, like a bomb going off or their friend returns.
In the case of the parcel, do they open it? What is inside? Whatever is inside, needs to drive your story forward. Perhaps the object in the parcel is dangerous and they have to get rid of it. Perhaps it is simply something that reminds them of their childhood or a painful or happy memory. Revealing something that happened to this character through the object can make a good short film, as long as you bring drama into the mix. Your character must always be up against some obstacle, however mundane or ordinary. Think about it this way, for someone having a nervous breakdown or struggling with depression, simply dropping a cup of sugar on the ground can be the biggest task they will ever face that day. If you film that right, even something as simple as dropping a condiment on the ground can be exciting. What if the act of dropping something make your character do something drastic?
So what is the next step in moving from a short film idea to a plot and a script?
Give your character an obstacle to overcome.
Then, make it harder and harder as the story progresses but at the same time try and reveal things about your character that make them and the story more interesting. I always like to use Indiana Jones as an example. His fear of snakes is great because he seems an invincible hero, but the thought that a snake can make him not as strong a hero as he seems adds more drama when you watch him in a scene with snakes.
Watch short films that have won awards. WATCH THEM. And don’t hold back from paying for them if necessary.
Honestly, you MUST watch great short films in order to make short films. You will see a pattern in the short films that win. Here are my suggestions:
Short Films To Watch
The Phone Call - an excellent example of a short film. Only two locations, lots of drama, a deadline with huge stakes. (Oscar)
Piper - This Disney Pixar animated short film is used time and again to show writers how to plot films. It has everything and it’s adorable. (Oscar)
Operator - similar to The Phone Call but completely different in it’s tone, style and drama levels. (BAFTA)
The Silent Child (2018) - Inspired by real life events. The Silent Child film centres around a profoundly deaf four year old girl. (Academy Award for Best Short Film)
I wanted to take one of these shorts and break it down, so I’ve chosen The Silent Child. I would suggest you watch the film and then read this breakdown and really study it. Studying short films, especially ones that have done well, should give you a better understanding of how to write your own:
The Silent Child - A Plot Breakdown
A speech therapist comes to see a child who doesn’t communicate and is deaf.
The mother is focused on her A-star children, she is a little too busy with her life and not attentive
We realise the child is completely removed from the family and they don’t sign with her or attempt to talk to her at the dinner table
The Decision To Go On The Journey/Debate
Just at the moment where the therapist thinks the girl will never communicate, the girl says the word “Orange”
By this point we have several ‘dramatic’ points as an audience that we are waiting to see revealed
1) Will the girl be communicating by the end of the film
2) Will she be happy by the end of the film
3) Will we discover what the problem is. Because we know she is unhappy and something has made her not communicate
This is why the audience stays - we want to know what will happen
Fun and Games
More progress is made between therapist and child
As they overcome the first obstacle, we see another obstacle emerge from the shadows…the mother
Stuff Gets Worse…
We see that the mother doesn’t want to learn sign language to communicate with her daughter. She wants her daughter to be able to understand.
We hear the mother screaming at the father about the situation while the therapist is at home looking up best arrangements for school for the girl
We are shown that the girl is becoming more attached to her therapist then her mother
New discovery! The girl’s father isn’t Paul - her mother evidently had an affair
This is good to note - we are now being given little tidbits as to why the mother is acting colder towards her daughter than might be expected. Build up the obstacles but then reveal why they are there.
The therapist is concerned the parents won’t make provisions for the girl when she starts school
What are the stakes now? We are worried that the girl will revert to how she was at the beginning - not communicating and alone - unless our hero, the therapist, prevails.
…And Worser… (bad grammar for effect)
Our worst fears are realised as the mother tells the therapist they won’t be continuing with sign language but will look for speech therapy instead
The Darkest Moment…Worserer…
We see the little girl at school, already starting to revert back to unhappy, non-communicative
Now usually, especially in Hollywood, this would be the moment where the therapist would break down the doors, rescue the girl and run off into the sunset. This film doesn’t do that. For several reasons:
1) It’s British
2) It wants the audience to feel shocked and horrified by the events because it has a real message after the film. To raise awareness for deaf children in schools.
3) It wouldn’t be realistic. In real life, if a therapist broke into a school and rescued a child, they would lose their license and probably be put in prison.
The therapist goes to the school and sees the girl, standing, alone, with no friends. She signs “i love you” to the therapist. Through the iron gates, the therapist signs “I love you” back to her, before leaving in tears.
Note the closed iron gates create symbolism here - little girl is in a prison, a very real one, where she is locked in by the lack of anyone using sign language with her.
Writing Short Films: Structure and Content For Screenwriter - One of the first books I used to make my first short film, it is packed full of useful advice and formula on how to write a good story, as well as examples from well known successful short films.
Oscar Nominated Short Films 2018, Selected Animation and Live Action - A great selection of short films that have been very successful. I highly recommend that you watch and analyse these and others to improve your own short filmmaking. Writers read, but filmmakers must also watch.
Rebel Without A Crew - If you’re looking for inspiration on how to make films with little or no resources, please read this book. It’s half diary, half resource on how Robert Rodriguez set about making his first feature film with no crew and very little money. His sheer passion and tenacity that comes through in this book is an inspiration to any filmmaker.