Guide to Writing a Short Screenplay

Making a short film is vitally different to creating a full length screenplay. For a start, the script will usually be between 15 and 40 pages long as opposed to 90 pages or more. As each page equates to a minute, there will be no room for dallying.

Making a Short Movie

A short movie is a great opportunity for the filmmaker to use visuals to the max, as imagery can convey much more than words. Visuals are also ideal for putting across, an atmosphere or a sense of place. A short screenplay only has room for a simple idea or concept. Remember, a short is not a screenplay story squeezed into a limited space; it is a different art form entirely. A shot film may convey:

  • A snapshot of life.
  • A viewpoint.
  • An observation.
  • A mystery.
  • Or inform.

Remember the short should always convey something, not merely present a mishmash of images and dialogue. Captivate the audience but also communicate an idea.

Tips for Writing a Short Film

Writing the screenplay for a short movie requires the following considerations:

  • Economy is everything; there is no room for setting up the story or delving into the background of the characters.
  • Propel the audience straight into the action or better still, just after. End at the end, not after.
  • Humor can work well in a short if this is the intention. Be careful with plot twists, as there will be little room for maneuver. The audience might guess the outcome.
  • Shorts are often seen as a calling card for future screenwriting talent.
View the project as the final thing rather than as a ‘practice run.’ Shorts present their own challenges, and some even view them as more difficult to produce than a full-length screenplay.
Short plays often have budget at the heart. Consider locations and actors.
Writing Dialogue for a Short
Consider cutting unnecessarily expensive props and special effects. Simplicity can often give a short film more immediacy. Also take extra care over dialogue. Cut wordy speeches and look for words that serve no purpose. Subtext and body language can be more effective at putting across the mood of a character than a scene comprising mostly dialogue that ‘explains’ what each are feeling or what is going on. In a short (unless intending to reflect a mood such as a busy office or stock exchange) dialogue is best kept to a minimum.
Short Movies for Trailers
Short movies can also serve the purpose of enticing an audience into buying a film or book. A short trailer can comprise a combination of stills and text that offer clues to what the story is about or proposes a mystery. Be careful not to give too much of the plot away. Too often, I have seen book and movie trailers that simply tell the story rather than entice potential customers with a question or a mystery. See example of a book trailer for the Shuttered Room above. It is only 35 seconds long.
Making a trailer too long can cost potiential viewers – no more than 2 minutes or so is acceptable. The audience has a short attention span when it comes to trailers, particularly if the images are repeated or nothing is being conveyed. Ask the objective view of a friend or colleague. If there is a tendency to click away before the end of the trailer, something needs to be cut.

Writing Short Screenplays

Writing and producing shorts is different to writing a full length drama, play or feature film. Shorts have limited space, budget and time, so make every word count. Cut out unnecessary descriptions and dialogue, and use visuals to the max; a picture can convey a mood more effectively and quicker than dialogue. Shorts are great for conveying a mood, an idea or simply inform. Every element must work hard; cut the flab. A short movie can also be used as a trailer for a book or movie. Be careful not to give too much of the story away or to repeat a visual. Present something different with each frame and don’t make the trailer too long or the viewer will click away.
More Tips on Writing for Screen