What Directing Short Films Taught Me About Writing Short Screenplays
DIRECTING WASN’T FOR ME BUT IT TRANSFORMED MY SCREENWRITING FOREVER
The short screenplay sector of the screenwriting world is a vibrant one. Shorts are an incredibly versatile way to hone your screenwriting skills as they allow you the chance to experiment. Each short you write is a golden opportunity to try something new. A short screenplay is also a great place to start if you’re just beginning your screenwriting journey. You can test the waters in short form before moving onto a full fledged feature. But crafting a great short screenplay can be tough, especially if you intend to use it to get noticed. Will your script become a short film? Are you willing to produce it yourself? Perhaps it’s your goal to win short screenplay competitions? I tried all of the above and learned a few things along the way. I’ve written shorts that others have produced, I’ve directed a few myself and I’ve placed high in one (1) screenplay competition. Let’s start with the competition. To this day it remains the one and only competition I’ve ever entered and it happened way back in 2007. There are two main reasons why I haven’t entered a short screenplay competition since. First, my friends and I were in the process of setting up a production company and planned on producing short films ourselves. (We did) Second, I found the whole process of putting yourself out there as a screenwriter terrifying. (I’m still working on that to this day.) The short films we wound up producing were an absolute blast to produce. I have so many wonderful memories on the sets of our short films. But I learned a very important lesson once I began directing my own scripts. For some people, writing, producing, directing and editing a short film comes naturally. Personally, the more hats I put on, the less time I had to focus on the individual demands of each job I took on. Slowly, screenwriting took a back seat to budget meetings, locations scouts, auditions, post production & more. I would have written so much more if I remained a dedicated screenwriter. Just a screenwriter. Having said that, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything because it taught me so much about screenwriting and what it means to me.
1. STORY COMES FIRST
In those days, we were scraping together funds on our own so I focused on smaller character pieces with limited locations. I began discarding ideas that would have been overly complicated and/or expensive to produce. Instead of focusing on story, I was trying to write around cool locations we found or actors we wanted to work with. I was writing with a directors eye instead of keeping my eye on the subtleties of my story. Typing FADE OUT is never the end when it comes to screenplays. There is an incredible world out there waiting to devour your words. But screenplay competition trends, budgets, actors, shot composition and logistics HAVE to come second when you’re writing. I lost touch with that. Thankfully, we live in a time when it’s possible to create so much with limited resources. You shouldn’t have to worry about the special effects needed to create the spaceship you just described. What if you left it out and a talented artist out there was fully capable of creating it cheaply using off the shelf animation software? Another big thing on short film writer’s minds is length. By definition, a short screenplay needs to be short but not at the expense of story. You can write an effective short weighing in at 5 pages or less. But there are also plenty of compelling shorts out there with running times north of 20 minutes. If it’s interesting, readers/viewers will stick around. Just tell a great story. Here’s my theory: Creativity and logistics share resources in your brain. Both require 100% of your imagination and problem solving skills to operate at full capacity. Basically, you can’t solve story issues when you’re worried about special effects. Creativity and logistics don’t work well together. They are meant to complement one another. Write something great & then find creative ways to bring it to life. So leave the other hats on the shelf until you’ve written something great.
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2. DIRECT AT LEAST 1 OF YOUR OWN SHORT SCREENPLAYS
This tip may seem a bit odd given my earlier rant about how directing short films limited my creativity as a screenwriter. But seriously, why not give it a shot with a low budget? Creating your own short film will teach you about character, dialogue, pacing, cinematography and more. Directing taught me how to let go of the words on the page and allow actors to be creative. You would be shocked to see how many lines of dialogue are easily discarded when you’re losing sunlight and need the shot. Editing short films taught me about the moments every film needs and how to let go of scenes that just didn’t work. It made it easier for me to spot those ‘cut-able’ moments during the development process. Marketing these projects taught me about the power of a great concept and how best to sell it. You’ll spend days agonizing over fonts for your poster or a music track for your trailer. It was time well spent even though it took me away from brand new screenplays I could have been writing. Creating a short films taught me an immense amount about the craft of screenwriting. I learned a lot about myself as well. Maybe my screenwriting journey took a detour but I’m thankful for the lessons I learned. I wasn’t meant to write and direct my own movies and that’s fine. I’m a better screenwriter because of those experiences and that’s what matters to me most of all.
3. WHAT MAKES A GREAT SHORT SCREENPLAY?
In order to craft an amazing short screenplay, you have to know what makes a great short film. Watch/write as many as you can. Study the ones you enjoy and peel back the layers of the ones you don’t. If you’re still searching for a voice take comfort that you are not alone. Not every screenplay will win screenplay competitions or become successful short films. But EVERY screenplay you write should enhance your skills.
Love every word so you can step back confidently and allow the words to speak for themselves. An audience is out there waiting.
A great short film has an amazing story built on the foundation of a fascinating concept. Great short films are expertly paced. Not a single moment is wasted. Great short films are unique, memorable and entertaining. Most importantly, a great short film is created by passionate artists who are dedicated to every detail. So what makes a great screenplay? EXACTLY the same things! Click here for more articles on Screenplay Development. Quick Note: I’ve never written an Oscar winner or a festival darling. I’ve never won a screenwriting competition. Like the about page says, I’m no expert, I just love to write movies. Above all else, writing short films helped ignite my passion for screenwriting. I wish the same for anyone who wants to write a short, direct a short or attempt both. Recently, I began kicking around concepts for new short films. After a few years away, I’m excited to explore new concepts beyond my feature length projects. I don’t know what will become of these screenplays but I love to write so it’s a win regardless of what the future holds. When I was still producing my own short films, I ran a movie blog called The Athletic Nerd. The blog has since been shut down but many articles remain. You’ll find tons of short films, screenwriting tales & info on all the projects we produced back then.