The budding screenwriter’s attraction to the short film genre is understandable — after all, why commit to 100 pages when a mere 10 will suffice? Commonly, beginning writers extend these constraints on physical breadth to emotional depth as well, rendering their short scripts superficial and thematically empty. The path forward involves a bit of philosophizing, a touch of mathematical thinking, and a boatload of humility.
The ‘twist’ isn’t enough
I know, I know. Your crafty twist on page 8 is precisely why you sat down to crank out your small, shining cinematic gem in the first place. What if the ‘innocent’ child turns out to be in on the grift the entire time? What if the brow-beaten husband snaps and murders his neighbor? What if the parish priest is actually the devil undercover? A plot twist, however, is only gut-wrenching when the reader or audience is emotionally invested. You have to earn your audience’s buy-in first, and in a short script, this sales pitch must be particularly efficient and urgent.
And therein lies the question: how does a writer craft a story that immediately resonates with or intrigues the audience, and can be tied up in less time than a Windows update? Remember that all of the same elements of feature-length cinema (character, tone, etc.) still apply to the short format. Additionally, the same essential rule of resource allocation applies for each element. If you include too much of one thing (Dialogue! Exposition! Writerly interjections that won’t even appear on screen!), you’re depriving yourself of space for other crucial elements, cutting short the emotional connection between reader and script, viewer and film.
Speaking of dialogue
In general, you’ve got 5–15 pages for a short screenplay. Such a length exerts pressures that feature and even pilot screenwriters don’t experience. The dynamic operates similarly to the difference between a poem and a novel. In a (good) poem, every single word, line break, and punctuation mark has been carefully selected by the poet for maximum meaning and impact. One carelessly chosen word can misdirect the entire enterprise. And while (good) novelists are certainly also being thoughtful with their choices of language and syntax, each individual word has a reduced chance of influencing a reader’s interpretation of the novel as whole.
So it goes with the short film genre. As in a poem, each word has a bit more weight. Excess dialogue, in particular, can chew up and spit out your precious precious pages with little to show for it. Each moment that dialogue is elevated over action has a crucial impact on the reader’s visual relationship to the script. It’s really not advisable to spend a few pages speaking the subtext out loud (is it ever?), nor is it wise to redundantly narrate that which is visually apparent.
Say, for example, your protagonist is late for a meeting downtown. It’s almost certainly not necessary for him to verbally explain to passersby that he’s in a rush; he doesn’t need to call his best friend and explain over the phone what’s going on, either. Just show him fighting traffic, sweating at a red light, cursing the ambling grandmother in a crosswalk under his breath — we’ll get the picture.
In other words, don’t be afraid to drop your short script’s protagonist into the thick of conflict without explaining said conflict to death. In fact, obscuring the origins of an obvious conflict can rustle up some intrigue and snag your readers’ attention. Short films rely as much on what goes unsaid as what is made explicit. A silent protagonist can easily make a bold statement.
Speaking of bold statements
I’ll be honest. Many of the short screenplays that come across my desk read as the writer’s secret fantasies clumsily spilled on the page. What if I did finally lose it and cheat on my spouse? This isn’t problematic in an absolute sense — I mean, some of y’all need some serious couple’s therapy, but that’s a discussion for another essay — especially because of writing’s inherent function as a mode of catharsis. But it is so obvious when a screenwriter has not done the deeper work of figuring out what they believe to be important or salient about their story. As a former mentor of mine would have unsparingly asked, “So what?”
Be shocking. Be scandalous. But also be meaningful, even if it’s in an existentialist, nothing-has-any-true-meaning kind of way. It’s really not that impressive to deliver up some head-spinning, stomach-turning imagery and then promptly peace out. Instead, I suggest you contextualize, proselytize, analyze, antagonize — and give due consideration to not just the what of your story, but also the how and why of its telling. Shock value is ultimately just another depreciating asset in the modern era, anyway.
Remember: short scripts still require a bit of planning and plotting, however bright and brief the initial bolt of inspiration. Imagine a friend asking you what your short screenplay is about. If your readiest answer is a rote replay of your story’s basic plot, you’ve got a bit more writing (and thinking) to do.