What Makes a Good Short Film | 9 Essential Rules

Short films are usually considered a newbie’s medium where they learn the ropes to become better filmmakers. That is more the reason you see a lot of average stuff when it comes to the shorts. For a beginner, it is essential that before taking his first leap at movie making, you should know what constitutes a Good Short Film.

So, what makes a good short film? An ideal short film comprises of a story, an exciting screenplay, tagging a compelling narrative directed at the audience. Ordinary stories can, therefore, undergo transformative revisions to come up with a script that is visually appealing on the screen.

To begin with, you might find making a short film a daunting task. However, learning the skill can prove to be your best shot at improving your command at screenwriting. Besides, it can quickly get you in the limelight while also providing you with a pathway for representation and financing.

The trick lies in making what is ordinary to the casual eye become exciting or thrilling to an audience. Usually, the adaptation follows the three-act structure.

  • Introduce the characters
  • Create a conflict
  • Provide a resolution

It can be an event or just two people talking. Regardless, there has to be more substance to the conversation. Enact an ideal ending that is carefully crafted to leave a lasting impression on your audience. The best short films engage a convenient conclusion by providing twists or new revelations, thus stirring excitement among the audience. 

At the formative stages of making a short film, ‘TIME’ is the most significant consideration. More so, as an essential component of producing short films on a small scale that aims at leaving an impression within a short session. For that reason, try to keep the length of the script at an absolute minimum.

Also, short films have the following qualities/characteristic:

  1. They tell the story of a character’s experience—but don’t overstretch. Unlike in the case of a feature, short stories have little room for either subplots, secondary characters, montages nor epic scope. That means they can only cover a single predicament and at the end, find a way to resolve it.
  2. Only utilize the available resources. Without the supporting effects, short films confine the drama and tension in telling highly personal stories—often taking place in an enclosed environment.
  3. They feature memorable characters. In the absence of special effects, leads play a significant role. With the whole plot enacted around characters that have to impose themselves upon the audience’s imagination within a short space of time. Thus, as good as the plots, twists, and story may be, without a relatable character, the film may not leave a lasting impression on the viewer’s mind. Critically, you need to give the cast strong personalities, quirks, needs, and goals that capture the imagination of the viewers along the journey.
  4. Shorts introduce twists at the opening and closing. Shorts have to enact unpredictability, keeping the viewers on their toes throughout, culminating in a grand ending. From the first minute to the last, short films achieve this effect by raising expectations, then subverting it.
  5. Often, they employ an optimistic outlook. Even in the darkest moments of the story, good shorts will find something positive while striving to remain on the story’s course.

In brief, you have to develop memorable characters, showcase a unique perspective, and employ the visual effects of film to illustrate your connection. Not only should you demonstrate a good grip on your audience, but also an element of unpredictability for you to increase the chances of your short film being a success.

In this article, we take a look at the essential steps to follow when creating a short film. Stick to the guidelines, and you will soon be proficient in creating short film scripts that bond well with the readers, audiences, and agents—let alone credit card companies.

When writing short film scripts, there are 9 rules you should remember. Let’s Delve in!

9 Essential Rules to make a Good Short Film

1. Make It Short

Just like the name suggests, the shorter the short, the better. Consequently, the longer the short, the harder it becomes to sustain the viewer’s attention. More so, this applies for online viewing, where the average time a viewer devotes to watch a film is 4 minutes.

Documentaries are however an exception to this rule, with viewers in most instances remaining engaged for longer. Regardless, most festivals will often not accept a short film that’s relatively longer than 30 minutes. For the ones that get approval, the programmers often raise the prequalification bar.

But that is not all; it also means the festival will have little room to maneuver the shows to fit everything within a limited time frame. Often, it’s advisable to re-cut the films to be in line with time requirements before resubmitting the short for consent.

To a large extent, comparatively short films (romance and comedies), can be more appealing to both distributors and buyers for the simple reason that they’re relatively easier to program. Furthermore, the shorts are better suited for multi-platforms such as online, mobile, and VOD channels.

2. Keep the Script Practical

For the most part, writing short films is a less stressful experience compared to the demands of a feature given you don’t have studio execs on your back. Regardless, you shouldn’t discard the fundamentals of writing your script.

In reality, you should conceptualize writing a short as an avenue of becoming more conversant with the implications of each line on the script and its cost implications. For that matter, if you only have a gateway to modest resources, you should think small in terms of allocations for the short film.

For instance, you can achieve a great deal by preparing the script such that it revolves around an exciting location. Moreover, be practical when considering access and control. At the same time, employ your discretion by choosing to avoid remote localities that may require driving for miles.

3. Make It Visual

Although “storytelling is a compelling way to put forth your ideas into the world,” don’t forget that “Film is a visual medium.” Thus, create a balance between the two—know when to show and where to tell. “Film is about telling compelling stories using pictures,” and shorts do so, in the most economical way. In that case, when you write shorts, the economic aspect is everything.

Work on creating visual backstories for your characters. How can you achieve that? You can use visual images to project their temperaments, profession, status, etc.

4. Find Single Moments

More often than not, the best short films feature a single focal point, a moment that is played out with a story at its core. What does that mean? In the general run of things, you should create conflict and then come up with a resolution. 

Let the viewer appreciate the predicament at stake and understand the choices available to the protagonist. Besides, you should aspire to add a deadline. A ticking clock may not be a prerequisite, but where possible, it serves to heighten the tension to your short film.

5. Tell a Story

Leave no stone unturned in telling an entrancing story. Be wary of concept-driven ideas or notions whose only aim is to break the rules in total disregard of any other goals. Though shorts provide scope to push the limits of what cinematography and captivating storytelling can do, you still have to engage your audience’s emotions.

Ideally, unless you intend to have an extremely brief short film, every other short should have a lead actor/hero with aspirations, and a protagonist/obstacle in the way.

6. Engage the Reader

Bearing in mind that you have limited time to leave an impression, the start of the film is of utmost importance. Just as it is pivotal to hook the audience at the initial stages of a feature-length script. To guide you, ask yourself?

  • What is the setting of the film?
  • Do you want to root for the lead character?
  • Does the setting and story of the short feel authentic?

Just like the opening scenes are essential considerations, so should be the ending. But since it’s a tall order to do it all at the end, you should work towards creating a meaningful and satisfying ending throughout the plot. 

7. Beware of Clichés when Creating Short Films

Time and again, you see clichés in shorts that are inappropriate—it can actually be worrying to see the number of times shorts use stereotypes depicting dead people, innocent kids, hitmen for hire, complicated relationships, heists, etc. Unless you have a new slant of the same, you should otherwise refrain from using such trite phrases.

Write what you’re conversant with or what resonates with you instead of writing something that you rehashed from other films. Don’t cringe at the thought of making a short story. Many a time, short formats are the ideal conveyance for stories. Most likely, you might not get as many opportunities to tell small stories in your capacity as a professional writer.

8. Avoid Repetition & Punchline Twists

In certain circumstances, the use of repetitive scenes is permissible—more so to enhance comical or dramatic effects. Nevertheless, if you don’t exercise caution, the repetition can end up being too predictable. Comedy is relatively hard to pull off in shorts, especially when you face the task of having to create humor. As such, it’s advisable to test it on the audience first.

For example, you can post a short snippet of the clip on a platform like YouTube or Myspace and deliberate on the feedback you get. Consequently, you can carefully select a funny character from the members of the cast to play the role.

Regardless, you have to be wary of the one-line gag or what is better known as a punchline in films—although some shorts can pull this off, many will often fall flat.

Despite the discussed reservations, if you’ve got a striking punchline twist, what you have to do is make it short and snappy. That way, viewers don’t have to feel disappointed that they had to sit through the session for just one joke at the end.

9. Exciting New Techniques & Style

How can you make an average plot intriguing? One way is by using emerging techniques and styles such as in the area of animation, camera, as well as art directions. Amid the experimentation, you have to keep developing your style. But having said that, you must also be wary of employing too much style over substance.

Even if original ideas might prove elusive, you will do well to avoid clichéd ideas by watching lots of other short films. Notwithstanding, be on the lookout for any trends and steer clear of them. As the last point, if you happen to stumble upon an idea that you deem isn’t completely unheard of, you can do well to look at the subject from a different context or use a different technique. 

Related Q&A’s

Why should you consider the expertise of an editor for shorts?

Editors have the capability of transforming your short film. It’s worth saying that, when you direct or edit your movie, there is always that lingering attachment to the specific footage. Hence, making it relatively inconceivable to determine the less integral parts you should chop out for a better or more coherent film.

With most programmers/ distributors overwhelmed with submissions, how can you make a short film that captures their imagination from the very start? 

Truth be told, if your short fails to pique their attention in the first few moments, chances are they won’t sit through the film till the end.

Conversely, avoid wasting time on lengthy intros and credits, that time would be better put in use sparking their undivided interest in the story forthright. Note—opening credits at the onset of the film can distract the viewer (all the more when the direction, production, and editing are by the same individual). 

Subsequently, it’s prudent to leave them out except in situations where you have prior arrangements with members of your cast.

What is the overall effect of a short film that commences with an extended establishing shot dominated by a lack of activity? 

In this case, it may prove difficult to recreate the rapport with your viewers once the film starts to unfold. Consequently, for naturally slow-paced/relaxed films, strive to make the shots rich or as enticing as possible to grab the viewer’s attention.

Ultimately, if you’re able to create memorable characters, exhibit a unique viewpoint, and be proficient in using the visual-aides of film to depict the intriguing and unpredictable situation—you should be well on your way to creating short films that each and everyone will want to see.

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