Week 16 – The Short Film Approach

“With a short you are allowed to do whatever you want.“

Gaspar Noé

Short films are successful economical storytelling: economy of time, place, and action. You as a writer are constantly being challenged to find quicker and unusual ways to convey information. And because many of the rules for generally scriptwriting don’t apply here – there’s just not enough time to set up a three-act story structure in 10 minutes -, we also have much more freedom in finding ideas. Nearly everything is possible!

It is said that the key to writing a short film in the first place is to keep it simple: KISS (Keep it simple, stupid). You can’t just squeeze a feature film idea with complicated plot lines, multiple characters and shifting locations into a short format. That’s why the goal is to keep the action focused in time (as short as possible), in place (as few locations as possible), and in action (one plot line).

“Paradoxically, short films telling simple stories are most likely to be experienced by viewers as being deep, because they leave a habitable space inside for viewers to enter and explore and construct meanings. Films full of clever twists or excessive detail are more likely to be experienced as superficial, keeping the viewer at a distance as an observer rather than a participant.“ (Kathryn Burnett)

All in all there are three major differences between the short film and longer cinematic narratives:

  1. In the short film there may or may not be conflict between characters. Some of the best short films are actually entirely free of conflict!
  2. The main character – once defined for the viewer – generally remains the same throughout. Furthermore there is no character arc. But character moments, i.e. moments when characters make decisive choices that change their situation.
  3. Wordless storytelling is a real option.

Besides this approach there is a more conventional blueprint like the one Coper & Dancyger are describing in their book >Writing the Short Film<. It mainly goes like this: set up a character-driven or plot-driven story with a beginning, middle and end. The main character may or may not achieve his or her goal, but the drive to achieve it carries us through the story to a final resolution. In detail this means:

  • Set up a main dramatic action, showing the protagonist in his or her life before things begin to change.
  • Introduce the catalyst, which can be as subtle an occasion as meeting a stranger’s eyes across a room, or as violent as an accident. The catalyst should have a visible effect on the protagonist.
  • Develop the dramatic action through a series of incidents in which the protagonist struggles to overcome the obstacle(s) that stand between him or her and the object of desire.
  • Resolve the action: the protagonist succeeds or fails in getting what he or she wants.
  • The film ends with a brief scene which comments on, or reveals, the main character’s situation at the end of the film.

There are also other things you should keep in mind:

  • The question of a short film can be tiny and very simple.
  • Often it is best to think of the story line as a single flow of incidents.
  • The viewer should never be able to guess what the characters will do next.
  • Your short film should have one core idea and everything needs to serve that idea.
  • When it come to locations try to find settings where there are ‘visual opportunities’.
  • In short films you can take full advantage of the opportunity to make the action as interesting to the ear as it is to the eye. Sound can and should become an integral part of the action itself.
  • Physical objects charged with meaning (for their characters) can become an important part of storytelling.
  • It is all about the beginning (to a certain degree!). An excellent twist at the end helps to, but if you give your audience something delicious, shocking or even something they’ve never seen before right from the start, you have their attention.
  • Adapting a short story is an option: “One obvious reason to adapt is because you have already found a story that has inspired you to produce it as a motion picture. A short story comes with built-in characters, plot, setting, and a theme or central idea.“ (46) (David K. Irving / Peter W. Rea) Having said this be willing to reinvent. Make the author’s story your story!
  • It is more important how you tell the story than the story itself. For fully exploiting the visualization process rethink it as a silent film. This will help you distancing yourself from language and to make visually writing decisions.
  • Not always the character placed at the center of the story will automatically interest the viewer.
  • You can even have no plot or no defined characters.
  • Form or style is as important as, and often more important than, content.

Rust Hills thoughts on writing short stories has some relevant points we can take advantage of. Often less is more!

“Whatever “resolution” occurs at the end is not so likely these days to be brought about by some final development of the plotting as it is by the introduction of some thematic note: a new image or symbol (of, say, hopefulness or despair), or by a bit of dialogue or description indicative of a new attitude.“ (Rust Hills)

Your turn!

1. Come up with a scene, in which two characters meet and are forced to communicate without words. Let their behavior be totally surprising, unpredictable. Let yourself be inspired by >Two Cars, One Night< (Taika Waititi)

2. Object related ideas: think about different ideas where an object is playing the main role. For instance two people meeting at the bus stop, both of them having the same unusual strange object. Or start with putting an object in an environment, where this object is in direct contradiction to its environment.

3. Have several 90-second exercise with applying the following rules:

  • One location.
  • Maximum of 1-3 words of dialogue.
  • There must be a POV figure.
  • There must be a beginning, middle and an end.

4. Besides that you can do an internet search for

  • Sundance shorts
  • Short film compilations offered by Netflix
  • The last few years of Academy Award–nominated short film compilations

5. What if you would shoot a short film every month for a whole year? They only rule is they must be related to each other. Then one year later you edit them together into a feature film.

Films to watch

You can find most of the following short films on YouTube.

Luis Bunuel

  • Un chien andalou

Charlie Chaplin

  • The Rink

Maya Deren

  • Meshes of the Afternoon

Jean-Luc Godard

  • All the Boys are Called Patrick

Joris Ivens

  • Rain

Buster Keaton

  • One Week

Albert Lamorisse

  • The Red Balloon

Georges Méliès

  • A Trip to the Moon

Roman Polanski

  • Two Men and a Wardrobe

Edwin S. Porter

  • The Great Train Robbery

Alain Resnais

  • Toute la mémoire du monde

Edmond Sechan

  • One Eyed Men Are Kings

Francis Thomson

  • NY, NY



  • Terri Timley – Synethesia (2009) YouTube
  • Charlie Graley – Crazy Hands (2009) YouTube
  • Eve McConnachie – Maze (2016) YouTube
  • Luke Davies – Unleaded (2016) YouTube
  • Sampson / Williams – The Black Hole (2008) YouTube