Short films are not just mini-features. They can be a great way to cut your videomaking teeth and generally have an easier time getting accepted into film fests, so they are often seen as a stepping stone toward a larger production. However, it’s important to understand that shorts have their own language and personality. An effective, engaging short film structure will necessarily differ from that of a feature length film, and the approach you take should reflect those differences. Here are some tips to help your short films pack a punch instead of falling flat.
Ditch the three acts…
If you’re like many students of cinema, the three act structure has been hammered into you since Screenwriting 101. That’s fine for a 90-minute feature that can be neatly broken down into beginning, middle and end, but what about a 10-minute short? Can you really sacrifice even 2 of those few minutes to laying out a complicated backstory? Instead, spend those precious minutes building out the core focus of your narrative — your character’s primary dilemma.
…but don’t neglect beginnings.
Leaving behind the tried and true three act structure doesn’t mean forgetting about a strong beginning. Start with a hook to draw your audience immediately into the story. Remember, there isn’t time for a lengthy exposition, so find a way to let your audience get to know your characters fast, even when your story starts in medias res. For example, if your story takes place the morning after a big party, instead of actually showing the party, maybe it’s enough for your main character to be stumbling through the early morning, still looking disheveled.
Memorable characters are at the heart of the short film — or really any film. Whether documentary or narrative, humans care about other humans. We are intrigued by the struggles and joys that others encounter, but only if those others are presented as authentic and believable. For a concise and impactful short, focus first on developing character in order to find the shape of your story, then leave out anything that doesn’t further that development.
Play with time.
Stories aren’t always told straight through, start to finish. The condensed nature of the short film is especially conducive to non-linear storytelling, which can allow you to cover more information within a shorter run time. Even if you choose to present your story from beginning to end, leaving gaps in time is perfectly acceptable and can even add mystery and intrigue to your plot. Waiting to reveal details at the perfect moment builds suspense and engages your audience, making that surprise ending to your short that much more rewarding. Let your audience make the connections and enrich your story with their imagination.
Remember, in it’s essence, video is a visual medium. This is even more important in the context of the short film. Time is limited and minutes spent telling are minutes not spent showing. Dialogue, when needed, should be concise and expressive rather than expository. Take advantage of the filmic language to show your audience what they need to know. From the beginning, plan for maximum visual impact — from setting, to color, to shot composition. Each shot should be dense with story information.
A short film is not just a shorter version of a feature. To be effective, it must distill the most crucial aspects of the story and communicate them in the most succinct manner possible. This requires a compelling story with a gripping hook and memorable characters, told in a suspenseful, visually engaging way.
Filmmaker image provided by ShutterStock.