How To Write A Short Script – First Draft to Production

Are you sitting by the phone waiting for a producer to call & kickstart your career? Well, you always have another option: kickstart it yourself by writing short movie scripts.

Writing short scripts for films is a great calling card for a writer to find representation or financing. Short films aren’t a lesser form of cinematic storytelling. In fact, writing them requires the exact same skills as writing a feature length script – though on a smaller scale. 

Writing short films can be daunting, but it’s one of the best ways to improve your screenwriting and get noticed. 

Start by brainstorming ideas for your short. Think of any ideas you can and try to see what you can experiment with your writing. Some conversation starters that can help you hone your search include: “What images or events can you clearly remember from childhood?”, “What are the themes you find yourself attracted to in cinema?”, etc. Perhaps you gravitate toward stories about family relationships, love triangles, underdog victories, or particular historical periods. Once you come upon the central idea for the short, write down all moments, set-pieces, beats, or bits of dialogue you’d love to see in the film. Don’t worry about whether or not you’ll actually include that dialogue or if that scene make sense, just write whatever comes to mind.

After you have a clear and simple premise, start to outline the film idea. Like feature films, short scripts have a beginning, middle, and end. During the outline phase, the goal is to map out the structure of the film, so it’s okay to not have an idea of every single scene. However, some writers find it helpful to know every scene, moment, or beat in a film before they start to write it. A beat sheet is a helpful companion to the outlining process.

The Shorter the Better

A short film can be anything from 15 seconds to 45 minutes in length. Make your short film script as short as possible because the shorter the short, the less costly it will be to produce. It’s obvious that digital technology frees up filmmakers, yet time still costs money, so does feeding a hungry crew. If you shoot too fast your short film might end up looking bad. It has to be a low budget film but shouldn’t look like it!  Also, if you want to get your short into a festival, then keep it to no more than ten minutes, which is usually 10 pages maximum. Ideally 1 minute duration is 1 page while writing a short script for any short film. Why? Because if your short film is longer, it will eat up a longer slot and festivals love to play as many shorts as possible! You can also create real emotion in just a few minutes.

Keep the Practicalities of Writing in Mind

The best thing about writing short films is that they can be anything which has never been done before. Experiment as much as you can if the story is genuine. However, don’t discard the practicalities of writing your script. The scenes that are mostly going to be occupying the whole movie should be low on pre-production costs. Scripts with pages of chase-action scenes, great locations are not something you want to include unless it’s really necessary to make your movie stand out. In fact, see the writing of a short as an opportunity to become more aware of what each line you put down on paper implies and costs. If you only have access to modest resources, plan your script accordingly.

Write every line after visualising it first!

Visual writing in a screenplay is everything which is part of your script that’s not dialogue – in simple words, visual descriptions.

This includes:

Scene action: What’s happening in the scene? Did a car just whiz by? Did a horse gallop past a window? What’s happening around your characters?

Character appearance: What does your character look like? Are they clean-cut? Sloppy? Bright-eyed? Tired? What are they wearing? A school uniform? A wedding dress? A sweater and slacks? The visual details you choose will tell us about your character as a person and what they are experiencing in the moment.

Location appearance: What does the space in which your scene takes place look and feel like? Share details that are unique to that space. Don’t say that the kitchen has a stove and refrigerator, instead, say what makes that kitchen different from another kitchen. Is it small and cramped? Vast and sterile? Warm and cozy? Be specific.

Character action: What is your character doing? How do they act and react? Someone just said “I love you” to your character – did they look down and start to cry, jump for joy, run away? Their physical responses can communicate what they’re feeling – don’t ignore them.

Highlight single moments 

The best short films are often where a single moment is played out, but one that has a story at its depth. Try to find inspiration in a particular element, moment, or feeling in your story. From there, grow it into a compelling, fully realized stand-alone short film

For example, story can be a conflict that has to be resolved, where there’s a dilemma at stake and a choice that the protagonist has to make. Think of extraordinary ways to glorify a deadline, or ticking clock. These are just some ways that will add some tension to your short film for this kind of story or genre.

Formatting your Screenplay

The layout of a screenplay can be quite a tricky thing to get right. This also involves loads of repeated formatting that over the course of the screenplay will take ages to complete. This is a very monotonous and lengthy process, so to save all this time and effort, it is recommended that you buy a specialist screenplay word processor like Movie Magic, Final Draft or Scrivener. There are other many other programs out there, a few of which are even free like Fade In, WriterDuet & Trelby.

Just to give a basic idea of sluglines commonly used in script, have a look at the format described below

Rewrite the Script

There’s a common phrase among writers that “writing is rewriting.” Once you have a first draft on the page, give the script to your friends or mentors for notes. When you go back in for the second draft, you might find that you need to restart the process and create a new outline. If that happens, that means there’s a problem with your overall story. Once your story is solid, you might only rewrite the script to finesse a scene or refine dialogue.

Try to make your short film YouTube friendly even if you are writing short films to submit in the festivals. You want to get noticed, think of a concept that’s unique. Execute them with creative ideas and never be afraid to experiment, these are the things that will make your script stand out from the rest and will never be just another copy in the pile of scripts waiting to get produced.