The Art of Short Filmmaking (Or My Version of It)


Love Bug (2009)

I recently taught a small workshop on the art of short screenwriting for Women in Cinema (a University of Texas student organization), which helps support female film students. Anytime someone gives me a white board, colored markers and a room full of students, I’m in heaven. I feed off the wide eyes, the furious note taking and the raised hands.

Some of the students asked me to put my thoughts on paper for those that couldn’t scribble notes fast enough. So here we go …

As a little backstory, I’ve had a number of short films play the festival circuit and I’ve screened shorts as a juror for a bunch of festivals. Needless to say, I LOVE short films! Roberta Wells my “mumblecore” short about an elderly woman with emphysema who just wants a cigarette played at Slamdance in 2004. I had two short films at Sundance, Hellion (2012) and Black Metal (2013) which I turned Hellion into a feature and am currently developing Black Metal into a feature as well. And a few years ago I had a children’s short film, Love Bug that played the kids’ circuit. Love Bug even brought the attention of Sesame Street, which was pretty freaking cool. Of these shorts, I’m a little all over the place with genre and style, but at the heart of it all, I just believe in a good story and interesting characters.

Writing a short film should take the effort of a feature. I’ll spend 10 drafts on a 6-page script just like I would on a feature script. I’ll use the same principles … three act structure, inciting incident, wants, flaws, character arcs, choices … This isn’t how all short films work. And certainly I love a lot of short films that don’t follow a classical structure. But knowing the rules and principles will help even if you toss them out the window.

The first thing I ask myself when approaching any project is “What makes this special?” What makes these characters and this story unique? Have we seen it before? If so, how can I flip it or take an interesting approach? This is where seeing a lot of shorts comes into play. You realize what people are making over and over and over again … zombies, gun-toting drug deals gone bad, heavy abuse stories, the apocalypse, grim reapers, the afterlife … you get the picture.

With that said, usually the first few ideas you have are the first few ideas everyone has. So go deeper. Make a list. Usually the crazier ideas you have further down that list are the more unique and interesting ones that we haven’t seen.


Hellion short (2012)

As far as approaching story structure, I’m a big fan of creating a pretty simple spine or backbone for all of my scripts. It doesn’t matter how insane or crazy or out there your script is, but what are the fundamentals? This is where I start.

Main Character: Which character has the biggest character arc? Who’s POV is this from? Plain and simple.

Want: What does your character want? (Love? Acceptance? Fame? The Girl?) What kind of tangible goals do they have? How can we see that want in a split second without a word spoken. The lonely girl looks over at the couple making out. She wants love, simple, done. The boy wants to escape from his captor as they drive to Texas.

Flaw: What’s your character’s flaw? I always start with the seven deadly sins. Wrath, Sloth, Lust, Greed, Envy, Pride, Gluttony … and then thinking of things like lack of confidence, selfishness or loss of faith. What is the internal flaw that my character is going to grow from throughout these five to ten minutes? Are they going from Pride to Humility? Or Lack of Confidence to Confidence? Or Wrath to Peace? What their flaw is and what they’re learning are the most important elements of any story. Basically how does your character change?

Inciting Incident: What is the event that changes this from any other day? What sets your story in motion? Is it discovering an alien? Getting grounded? Someone’s head explodes? The car breaks down? Often times a character gets what they want by the first act in a feature or the inciting incident in a short. The woman gets the opportunity of love when a stranger offers himself up on a crowded subway train. The boy gets the opportunity to escape when the car breaks down.

The Catch or the “But”: When a character gets what they want, there’s usually a catch to it or a “but”. This creates the conflict. She gets the opportunity for love but he’s a total stranger and could be a crazy person. The boy gets the opportunity to escape when the car breaks down but his captor is two feet away as they approach the gas station. Elliott gets the companion he’s been longing for, but he’s an alien from another planet.

Unhealthy Reaction: The other aspect in a story that keeps us on the edge of our seats is often times when your protagonist takes an unhealthy reaction to the situation. When Elliott finds E.T. the healthy reaction would be to tell his mom, tell the authorities and let the adults handle the situation. But because he’s so desperate for a friend and selfish (kids are naturally selfish), he lies to his mom, hides E.T. from the authorities and that’s what makes the story interesting.

Stakes: What’s at stake? What heightens this situation for us? What’s challenging our character’s flaw and forcing them to grow through the course of six minutes or ninety minutes? What keeps us on the edge of our seat to find out what happens next? Will he tell her that he loves her? Will he escape his captor? Elliott has to grow from selfish to selfless against the stakes of having to fight to save this alien’s life and get him back home before E.T. dies.

Climax: What is the pinnacle of this story? What situation can you put your character in so that they have to make a huge choice? What is this moment of crisis? Mr. Incredible has to choose between saving the world on his own or choose humility against his pride and work with his family to save the human race. Elliott has to rescue his best friend from the U.S. government to send him home and choose selflessness.

Choice: What’s the choice your character makes? Hopefully they’ve learned something in order to make a choice away from their flaw.

Learns: What does your character learn in the end? You want your character to change or grow, so usually what they learn is the opposite of their flaw. Confidence, selflessness, humility …

Theme: This is usually one word that I’ll hang my whole story on. On former projects those words have been: Strength, Fear, Monster, Responsibility … this is the word I write on a post-it and tack to my computer. It’s a word I’ll come back to when I find myself in a rut with a specific detail … whether it’s what kind of job they go to, to what kind of stuffed animal they carry around. I go back to that one word.

I feel like if you can break your script down into really really simple terms, a word here or there for each of these things, it simplifies and demystifies the writing process. This is what really helps me so helpfully it helps you.

But again, the most important question you should be asking yourself about your story or your film above everything else … “What makes this special?”