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how to guide by Andrew Lowes | 2001

How To Scriptwrite Part 5 - Short Films

The short film is often looked on with a certain amount of disdain. The attitude which often prevails is that there is no point in writing a short and that you ought to be working on a feature instead. Frankly, I think that’s rubbish. Writing a short film is a tricky thing to get right. But the process of doing it is invaluable if you have any hope of becoming a screenwriter.How short is short?The not very helpful answer is that it’s any film that is shorter then a feature. However nobody has ever really defined what constitutes the minimum length a film has to be to qualify as a full-length feature. Generally, a short is normally considered to be anything less then 45 minutes in length. But (and it’s a big but) cinema and television programmers are currently extremely unlikely to give houseroom to anything over ten minutes in length.Trying to tell a story and create decent characterisation in ten minutes isn’t easy. In a feature you can afford to take your time to build a narrative. In a short this just isn’t possible. Complex, multi-layered storylines are almost certainly not going to work. A short has to be simple and direct. Don’t make the mistake of many writers and try to cram as much in as possible. Yes, the film should act as a showcase for your writing ability but by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the mix you are going to come out with a jumbled, unfocused piece of work.A simple story well told with good characterisation and memorable dialogue is going to be far more beneficial to you than what would result if you try to show off. That’s not too say that you shouldn’t try and experiment. People want to see something different. We have a horrible habit in this country of jumping on to bandwagons. ‘The Full Monty’ was popular so suddenly lots of people are making films about working class men overcoming adversity in many and various amusing ways. ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ is a hit, so every British film for the next two years has to be a gangster picture. Short films give you a wonderful opportunity to experiment with narrative that features rarely offer you. Try and give your scripts a real sense of energy.Cast of thousandsEr, or not actually. Because you are constrained by time a large cast is probably going to prove unwieldy. It may be better to focus on a few characters instead. Characterisation is all-important to a short, as you have to try and get across large amounts of information about people in a very short space of time. A smaller cast will give you a better chance of succeeding. Short films are usually low budget so they probably won’t be able to use a large cast anyway.DialogueThis is extremely important to the success of your film. Every word has to count. If a line isn’t saying something about your character then change it so that it does. Don’t use endless amounts of swearing in a desperate attempt to shock your audience. If you do need to use bad language then a few well-chosen expletives will be quite sufficient. Anything else simply comes across as monotonous and makes you look like an unimaginative writer.It’s also important not to give your characters ‘preachy’ dialogue. It’s easy to do when you are dealing with an emotive subject but it sounds false. Make sure you read your script out loud. It’s a simple thing but it can make a world of difference. Suddenly all the really deep and meaningful lines tend to sound like they’ve come straight out of an American daytime soap opera.BudgetShort films are almost always extremely low-budget affairs. Bear in mind the things I mentioned last week about low budget filmmaking. Try to limit the amount of locations you use even if you never intend that the film be made. It’s a good habit to get into. Don’t make the mistake of a script I read once which began something like:Ext. Old Trafford. Day Match day. The stadium is full to capacity. We start high above the terraces and gradually move down into the crowd until we find our main character, BILLY.We move ever closer until BILLY fills the frame. BILLY Hey ref! Are you blind?! Hopefully it should be fairly obvious that this opening sounds nice on the page but would be absolutely impossible for the average short film to be able to achieve. The opening sequence for the Hollywood feature ‘Snake Eyes’ did something similar. It took a week to rehearse and film and cost a lot of money in the process.One of the best ways of learning how to avoid the pitfalls of short film writing is to watch other people’s shorts. Even if you don’t like them ask yourself why. What didn’t work? Were the characters developed well enough? Did the story work?But as with most things in life the best way to get better at something is to practise. Then practise some more. Then some more….I think you get the idea.

Screenwriting Part 5 - WRITING SHORT FILMS

Screenwriting Part 4 - WRITING FOR LOW BUDGET

Screenwriting Part 3 - LAYOUT


Screenwriting Part 1 - STRUCTURE

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Company Secretary Guide - Part 2


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