Top Lessons for Writing Shorts

26.10.23 01:58 PM By Bernhard

7 Insights to help improve your next short script

CenterFrame hosts multiple funding rounds and competitions throughout the year. Reviewing all these wildly different projects, we’ve noticed patterns and trends emerging among the top-performing short screenplays. This has allowed us to gain valuable insights into what works, and what doesn’t work quite so well in the short film format.
These insights are especially true for our GET IT MADE competitions, where the remits are quite specific (e.g. 5 pages, 5 characters).
So without further ado, here are the top lessons we suggest considering when you embark upon your next short film screenplay:

Lesson 1: Write For The Format

The scripts that achieved the highest scores from readers during GET IT MADE, and later received the most votes from our members, were all written specifically as short films, many specially for the competition they’ve entered. They worked well as they felt like complete, satisfying stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Conversely, it was clear a number of scripts had lived a past life in the feature film format. The writer had either taken a scene or sequence from a feature screenplay, or squashed the whole feature down, and turned it into a short. These projects didn’t fare so well, as they felt like unsatisfying parts of something bigger, rather than complete narratives in their own right.
So resist the temptation to squish down your feature, or convert a scene or sequence from an existing piece, into a short. Instead, take the opportunity to write something new that’s tailored for the short film medium.

Lesson 2: Keep It Simple

The most highly-ranked scripts in the competition all featured only a handful of characters and one or two locations, and told simple stories. You don’t have the time or narrative space in a short film for a complex narrative or plot, so focus on a simple, character-driven story, well told.
For example, Outside Noise, which obtained production funding in CenterFrame’s summer round, is about an overwhelmed young woman who listens to a sleep ambience app to unwind before bed, only to discover the app has welcomed something frightening into her bedroom.
Crusts, the winner of CenterFrame’s Get It Made UK Edition, is about an Irish widower who,  a month after her husband’s death, returns to his grave with her family to mark the occasion with a picnic.
They’re both simple stories, in one location, well told.

Lesson 3: Introduce Characters Clearly

In a number of scripts, the main characters were described vaguely or inconsistently. There would be a passing reference to a: “scruffily-dressed man”, then a character called Darren would suddenly start talking, then there would be a reference to “Carol’s cousin”. This caused confusion as it wasn’t clear if these were three different people or all the same person, and it was hard to tell who the main characters were.
There’s very little time in a short film script to introduce and get to know characters, so as soon as a new character enters the story, give them a clear name, along with a brief description, and use that name consistently throughout the script.

Lesson 4: Avoid Elaborate Practical FX or Visual FX Shots

If, as a filmmaker, you have the ability to achieve a certain standard of VFX and know it can be done in a way that helps you achieve the vision in the script, then by all means keep it in. However, we’ve noticed some scripts have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in a short film, especially given the usually limited resources of a short film production.
For example, we’ve read scripts set on elaborate Alien planets that will require a vast amount of CGI, or that have scenes involving animals that would need CGI, as it would be difficult to get a real life animal to act in the way the story required.
If the FX shots can be cut or significantly simplified, and the story remains just as compelling, we recommend doing so. However, if the film relies on elaborate FX, you should be aware that the likelihood of the film being made significantly decreases, and might not even make it past the readers (especially in the case of our Get It Made competition).

Lesson 5: Avoid Mass Extras

Scenes involving crowds can also be too costly for short films. That scene set in a classroom full of school kids or a café full of customers will require extras that have to come from somewhere, and will all need to be fed and be paid travel expenses.
Like with FX shots, if you have the means to achieve it, or the scene could be filmed in a public space, then it could be fine. But there are also workarounds that will be less costly.
For example: if your characters have to go to a café, think about setting the scene when it’s only just opened or is about to close, so it’s quiet and hardly anyone is around. If a scene in a school is essential, think about setting it in a hallway or after class, so only the characters essential for the scene are present.

Lesson 6: Cut Extraneous Detail

Writing concisely and economically is an important skill in any medium, but in a short film, it is crucial. As Christopher Nolan said: “Minimum Words. Maximum Impact.”
You can’t afford any padding. Every word has to count.
After you’ve completed a draft of your script, go back through it and cut out any dialogue, character actions and lines of description that aren’t essential to your story. You might be surprised by how much you don’t actually need.

Lesson 7: Stick The Landing

When Marvel’s Avengers movies: Infinity War and Endgame were in development, the producers knew that, for the franchise to be a hit, the ending had to be perfect. So they code named the films: “Mary Lou”, after the American gymnast Mary Lou Retton. She won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics after nailing the perfect landing.
Getting the ending right is arguably even more crucial in a short film than it is in a feature. You have so little time to engage an audience with your story that if you don’t have a strong ending, readers and audiences can be left with an anti-climatic or unsatisfactory, “so what” feeling.
So make sure your ending is as powerful and engaging as it can possibly be. It must stick the landing.