How Writing Short Films can Start Your Career [W/ Short Film Outline]
Chances are you’re reading No Film School because you’re not only obsessed with Hollywood, but you want to be a part of it. But breaking in is never easy. That’s why I think writing short films and even making them yourself, has become a viable option for breaking into the business.
Of course, writing a short film is no simple task, but today I’ll take you through a few great strategies to get your short film ideas on the page, and then hopefully on the screen.
Let’s get going!
But let’s get this out of the way first…
How Long Is a Short Film?
A short film is any film that isn't long enough to be considered a feature. The Sundance Film Festival allows its shorts to be 50 minutes or less. The Academy Awards sets the bar at 40 minutes. Technically this is what qualifies as a short film.
Don’t get too caught up in thinking about these varying lengths. Focus on what you want to do with your short, the world, the characters, the situation, and see where you land.
One of my favorite shorts of all time clocks in at 26 minutes. It’s called Six Shooter, and was directed by Martin McDonagh.
But writing 26 pages can feel like a daunting task.
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend trying to see what you can achieve in five pages. I know what you’re thinking, “5 pages, that’s easy!” Head over to Channel 101 for a look at a handful of stories crafted in the 5-minute span. Channel 101 is a way filmmakers cut their teeth writing short films, and developing short film ideas. It's where popular animated show Rick and Morty began.
How to Write a Short Film that Connects
But writing short films that actually connect with an audience and receives acclaim is hard. Short film comedy is a common route, and you can search top short films on youtube to see what people are connecting with currently.
When you consider it, isn't an Instagram story a short film? Certainly, a skit is. Short films surround you. Which ones do you connect most with?
Start with five pages and then expand. If you expand too much, your idea may not even be right for a short film.
Here’s another one of my favorite short films that spans 60 years and is less than three minutes long.
When you’re writing a short film, there are lots of options about length.
How will you know if you’ve got the right short film ideas?
How to Brainstorm Writing Short Film Ideas!
Short films are kind of a tricky path to follow. When we sit down to write, the natural inclination is to set up a huge story with a lot of characters, and great stakes, but that’s not really what short films are about.
A short film needs to take us on an emotional journey, but we should never feel like the story is crammed into the allotted time.
The short film has to be able to stand alone.
In my opinion, the best short films take us on a fulfilling journey, that often happens "in the moment" so to speak.
That means, the story might play out in real time, or close to real time. When I’m sitting down to write a short film, I think about situations or moments that can tell a grander lesson but occur in real time.
What are some scenarios from my own life? What are some events that happened to me that taught me lessons applicable to writing short films?
Did I ever spend an afternoon with a grandparent? Help someone change flat tire? I know I’ve been on a ton of bad Tinder dates.
This great short is about the anxiety of giving a school presentation.
Chase your own life around for a bit. Do some self-reflection.
I like to mine my own life, and then add fantastical elements to the mix. Build your story out, accentuate the characters, find the crucial moments where we learn something.
And let the idea take you where you want to go.
When I’m writing a short film I also like to think about limitations. Can I tell a story that takes place entirely in the back seat of a car?
One that’s just about a game of hide and seek?
Some of the Best Short Films are Pixar Short Films
Pixar is known for it's well crafted features, but to unlock some of their storytelling secrets, look no farther than the shorts that lead off the Pixar film experience.
Take this short film, Piper, by Pixar Animation.
This short film takes place almost in real time. It has a simple quest, for a baby bird to get a shell. It’s a SIMPLE goal, but it’s still an enthralling watch.
It’s a simple story, but it gets the audience’s attention right away. We’re emotionally hooked to this baby bird, and along for the ride.
If you want to think about humans, take the lessons learned in Pixar’s Bao.
This is only three minutes long, but it shines a light on familial love the same way Pixar’s feature-length films do. Just on a smaller scale.
Again, these movies are all personal stories. We can identify with the characters in the moment, and we have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
No narrative cram! Pixar short films aren't just helpful at understanding how to write short films, they're a low-key storytelling masterclass.
It’s my opinion that the best short films tell a story that’s solely about one experience. I think many short films suffer from trying to do too much, or set up too big of a world.
There are tons of other great short films online too. Just look for them and figure out what's working for you, and what isn't.
Once I have a short film idea I like, I like to use this simple tool to see if my idea works
Short Film Idea Outline
We use feature film outlines to plan out our stories, so how can we use a similar outline to plan out our short film ideas?
When I sit to write a short film, I always shoot for around twelve pages. I like to write in increments of four pages for each act, and then trim or expand as I flesh out the idea.
Sometimes this leads me to a feature film…or a TV show…or anything but a short film...
But it’s a great way to get my idea going and to expand my own understanding of the story.
Here’s a simple short film outline I use to get my stuff going….
- What’s the opening scene?
- Who’s out character and what do they want?
- Who populates their world?
- What immediately stands in their way?
- Where are we on page three?
- What else makes it hard?
- Where are we on page five?
- What changes in our character’s mood or outlook?
- Where are we on page seven?
- What’s the worst thing that happens?
- How do they react to the worst thing?
- Where are we on page ten?
- Can the worst be fixed? How?
- Where are we on page 12?
- Where do we leave our characters?
These fifteen prompts get my mind moving. They force me to always create obstacles, introduce characters, and keep things going.
So let’s break down a short film using it!
The Last Farm, directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson. It's 17 minutes long, so this all won't be EXACT, but let’s try it anyway.
1. What’s the opening scene?
The farm doing chores, getting his farm ready for what we presume is winter.
2. Who’s out character and what do they want?
Our farmer wants him and his wife to stay in the house. His kids want them to move out.
3. Who populates their world?
They live in isolation but seem happy.
4. What immediately stands in their way?
Their kids want to put them in a home.
5. Where are we on page three?
Three to five minutes in, we know the world, the stakes, and see both sides of the argument.
6. What else makes it hard?
The conditions on the farm, the kids, the neighboring food delivery guy.
7. Where are we on page five?
We know this guy is proud and doesn’t want help. We know he’s stubborn. So we can feel the existential dread of confrontation coming our way.
8. What changes in our character’s mood or outlook?
He’s reconciled that this is a losing battle, but still works tirelessly to prove he can live here.
9. Where are we on page seven?
Life has gotten terrible, we know he’s digging a grave, and we can feel the heat as his family careens toward him. Tension!
10. What’s the worst thing that happens?
His wife is dead! He’s going to be alone in the old folks home without her.
11. How do they react to the worst thing?
He’s going to bury her at their home, but we get the sense that he HAS TO do it before his family arrives.
12. Where are we on page ten?
We’re biting our nails as he gets her funeral ready, and the car comes toward him.
13. Can the worst be fixed? How?
He can’t make her alive again, but he can bury her there.
14. Where are we on page 12?
He has her coffin in the ground, and we see him saying a prayer and saying goodbye to the idyllic home.
AND THEN HE GETS IN THE GRAVE!!!!
15. Where do we leave our characters?
As the car pulls up, we leave our man buried underground with his wife. We don’t know if they’ll be dug up or what, but we do know that his wish of spending his life with his wife has been fulfilled.
That was super powerful. And I know it can feel daunting to write after watching that masterpiece.
Still, grab that checklist and let’s brainstorm some of your short film ideas!
More Short Film Idea Brainstorming
If you’re trying to make something compelling in 5-20 minutes, I find it’s easier to brainstorm an event that only takes that long to unfold, and then dials in the consequences.
One thing I like about this short film, called Election Night, is that it shrinks its story down to cover the final ten minutes before the polls close, while still crafting compelling characters and giving us a full story.
While this short film doesn’t happen in real time, it still exudes the frenetic pace of something that can happen in a short period of time.
These are all pretty ambitious, but what if you’re making a short on a budget? Or this is your first attempt at making a short film ever?
Look no further than the Duplass brothers amazing short, This Is John, to prove that you don’t need expensive set pieces or VFX to create a compelling story.
As you can see, it’s not about the budget, it’s about what the audience takes away.
Now, outside of trying to win awards, you may think devoting time to writing short films seems fruitless, but right now, it’s one of the best ways to break into Hollywood.
So, How Can Writing Short Films Help You Break in?
A great short film is a wonderful way to get noticed as a director, but I stress GREAT. Not good, not "well shot," but great.
You have to put all the effort you can into your short film.
If you’re a screenwriter, you may be able to use a short film as a sample, but likely not. But writing a great short film can be an excellent calling card and get people interested in reading your feature films.
Still, if you’re just starting out, or trying to hone your voice on the page, writing a short film is a great way to define your voice and master screenplay formatting.
Many believe writing a great short film is harder than writing a feature. You have to be able to master economy on the page, shorthand in storytelling, and know when to start and end.
Those skills will only come in handy more when you need to trim your 120-page script to 90.
Theoretically, you’re reading this post because you want to have a short film that helps you break into Hollywood.
Let's say for argument's sake you have a GREAT short film. What then? People don't usually buy short film scripts. First thing you want to do is you want to make your short film. Maybe if you can't get a budget together you'll go the animated short film route.
That could mean entering it in a festival, or just getting your friends and family to post it all over the internet.
Either way, you want people to find and see the short film.
Then, if you're lucky, multiple people will see it and reach out to you.
Suddenly you might have reps. Yay!
Why Else Would You Consider Writing a Short Film?
Hollywood is making less and less movies every year. Now they want to make sure they have proven yourself and so has the material.
Writing a short film is a great way to give any exec in town an appetizer portion of your talent and your feature.
Recently, Damien Chazelle directed a short film version of Whiplash to secure funding for the feature film.
Hollywood wants to know it’s betting on someone who can control the story. Having a great short film will ease the worries of big financiers.
Most of Hollywood is now obsessed with PROOF OF CONCEPT shorts. Those can be as small as the Whiplash, one you just saw, or as large as a Neil Bloomkamp movie.
If you want the money to make District 9, you’re going to have to put a lot up front.
Or find a unique way to get your idea across.
Check out this short film meant to entice studios to pay hundreds of millions of dollars on a space adventure movie.
While it’s a little thin on story, this short film gets the general concept and scope of the feature film across.
It was big enough for Fox to bite and purchase the idea.
This is the quality people expect from things like this. Yes, they're often VERY EXPENSIVE.
When you spend that much, you better make that much.
Too much pressure can sink your short film idea.
Now, if you’re like me and poor, you should focus on making something GREAT that's cheaper and more indicative of what you’d do with a feature.
Hala, directed by Minhal Baig, was able to help her secure financing for the feature-length version of this story. It also helped her get reps in Hollywood.
She was able to crowdsource the budget and get it in front of the right people.
There are many ways in the Hollywood door.
As you can see, there are a lot of different ways shorts help, but, as I mentioned, these short films are all GREAT in their own way.
They carry their stories and are indicative of the work these people can do as directors and what you'll get if you hire them.
What's Next After Writing Short Films?
Now that we’ve gone over the process, I hope it’s clear to see that writing short films, and making them, are great ways to get started in Hollywood.
Again, the script isn’t as valuable as the finished product, but it can be an incredible way to figure out your storytelling methods and make them a reality.
Check out our other post on the question of a short film's monetary value.
What are some of your favorite short films?
Got tips for people trying to get into writing short films? Let us know in the comments.
I can’t wait to update the article with what you think are the best short films!
Hopefully, some of them are your own creations!