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Alt-Script: How To Become a Better Screenwriter

Clive Davies-Frayne explores how you can become a better screenwriter by writing and producing short film scripts.
courtesy of Sebastian Horndasch under a creative common license

courtesy of Sebastian Horndasch under a creative common license

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I want you to consider the possibility that the following statement is true:

"You can’t learn to be a good screenwriter solely by writing, getting notes on your writing and reading articles about screenwriting."

Although all of those processes are useful, ultimately they fall short of what a screenwriter really needs to make progress. This is because if you want to become a better screenwriter, what you really need is to write a script and to see that script made into a film. It’s that simple.

It’s only when you hear your dialogue spoken, and see your action played out on the screen, that a writer really starts to appreciate how much more they need to know, in order to make a film worth watching.And until you actually see what you’ve written as some form of finished product, you’ll only ever be able to guess about how well you’re really doing as a writer. Trust me. Seeing your first film go into production is both an exciting and a humbling experience. It is the reality check that every writer really needs, more than anything else.

This is the reason, in my opinion, anyone serious about becoming a better screenwriter should try to enter at least two or three short film competitions a year. Not screenwriting contests. I’m talking about short film contests, where you have to write a script, turn it into a film and the prize is awarded on the quality of the film.

The funny thing is, you almost never hear screenwriters talk about short films, unless they’re already working with an indie filmmaker. Screenwriters working with filmmakers already know the value of short films, because indie filmmakers love short films. Indie filmmakers know that before you try to take on a feature, you have to pay your dues by making shorts.

I wish that screenwriters were more like indie filmmakers. They love it because it’s the absolute best way to learn your craft. They love shorts because you can make one in a day or over a weekend. They love them because they can be shared online on Youtube and Vimeo. They love them because there are always a couple of short film contests kicking about you can throw your work at. They love them, because all the major film festivals have “short film corners,” so your short film can get you into Berlin, Toronto or even Cannes. Filmmakers love short films.

Screenwriters, on the other hand, hardly ever talk about short films. Most of them have their eye firmly set on the prize of “sales to industry” and “getting an agent.

Those of us who write about screenwriting are as much to blame about this as anyone else. The vast majority of the advice that we create for writers is about writing feature films and pilots. I can’t remember the last time I read an article about writing short films. This is a pity, because there are a lot of good reasons for nailing the writing of short films:

The first reason for writing and making shorts we’ve already discussed. It really is the best way to develop as a writer. You write something. It gets made. You can see for yourself where your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are, and because you’re putting it into competition, you get to compare your writing against the writing of other filmmakers.

Secondly, a short film needs to engage their audience in the first couple of seconds.You don’t get the luxury of five or six pages to establish the plot or the central characters. If you look at Youtube’s research into audience retention, they conclude that online viewers give content a maximum of fifteen seconds to decide whether to watch a video or whether to look for something better. As most short films become online content, you never have more than fifteen seconds to gain the audience’s attention and their trust. Fifteen seconds is quarter of a page. And, if you think quarter of a page is too little time to establish trust, then let me completely blow your mind. One of the biggest trends in short film contests are the creation of micro-films. These contests often restrict the film’s length to sixty seconds, thirty seconds… or even less.

The last short film contest I entered was the Four4, a film contest where you have to tell your story in sixteen seconds precisely… and, where you have to tell your story in four, four-second long shots. This is our effort to create a sixteen-second sci-fi film on a budget of less than $30. We're pretty pleased with it.

In terms of my own development as a screenwriter, I really like micro-film contests. I target them precisely because they require me to hone my visual storytelling into the moment. Given that audiences are won and lost in fifteen seconds, any film contest that requires me to tell a tale in sixty-seconds or less, forces me to think outside of the long-form thinking. Of course act structure, conflict and characterisation are a big part of telling any story, but the key to a good micro-film is about how much story you can push into one filmic moment.

The third reason screenwriters should be looking at micro-film contests, is they force screenwriters to do one of two things: either you grab your iPhone and make it yourself, or you get up from your desk and start forming relationships with local filmmakers. Both of these options will be good for you. Local filmmakers need good scripts, and whilst they can’t pay you, they do enter films into festivals and competitions. And, if you choose the DIY/iPhone option, you’ll rapidly learn new levels of respect for filmmakers of all kinds.

The final reason screenwriters should make short films is because it makes good career sense.

A film in a film festival, or in competition, is a film that can generate a credit on IMDB. Professionally, there is a huge difference between being an uncredited writer and one with a record of making films.

I’m not the only columnist who thinks shorts are a vital part of any writer’s development Lucy V Hay (AKA Bang2Write) says exactly the same thing in her article on how to maximise your portfolio.

The other thing is, get a few wins under your belt with a short film and your profile really starts to take off. And, a film that wins in one festival/competition is easy to enter into other competitions and festivals. Last year Imade a one-minute film in about six hours. So far Silhouette has netted me the following:

  • 1st Prize in the original competition
  • Screenings in a major cinema
  • Screenings in two major art galleries
  • Runner-up in another competition (with a cash prize)
  • Screenings at a large regional film festival

That’s a pretty good return for a total of six hours work.

If you’re serious about becoming a good screenwriter, I urge you to put aside a couple of days a month to writing and making short films. Find a nice little contest, like the Four4 or one of Raindance’s short film contests, and have a go. I urge you to find local filmmakers. People who are fun to work with. Make something that you can do for a couple of bucks, in no more than a day or two.

Finally, if you’d like to help out another screenwriter to win a contest, you can help me and my production team out by tweeting @Fourcomp #Vote4Contact - the more votes we get the better our chance of taking the cash prize… and let’s face it, winning cash is always better than not winning cash.

Keep writing and viva la revolution.


For invaluable advice on short film ideas, download the 1st chapter of Roberta Marie Monroe’s book How Not to Make a Short Film! and create inspiring short films today.

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