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Thinking of Writing a Short Film? Ask These Questions First

Writing a short film is a whole different beast than a feature-length screenplay. Learn the questions you should ask to fit essential story points into only minutes.

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The length of a short film can range from anywhere between approximately one-minute to forty-minutes. There are less restrictive guidelines for writing a short film than there are writing a traditionally structured mainstream feature-length film. Sounds easy, right? Not really. Actually…not so much.

The demands on the writer are in many ways even greater because there is less time (fewer pages) to convey an engaging story and compelling characters. Knowing how to successfully craft a short film screenplay is essential in grabbing the reader’s attention.

A short film has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits, with many shorts not surpassing 10 minutes, for festival scheduling ease. There are time constraints due to a short film’s length: adding subplots, secondary characters, and numerous locations, are elements to avoid. Less is more. Generally, it’s best to tell one story and tell it well.

If you are thinking of writing a short film, here are some questions to ask yourself to get started:

  • What is the unique point of view on the subject matter?
  • Whose point of view is the story told?
  • What is the world of the film and how do the characters function in this world?
  • What makes this story and characters different or special? Find ways to make the plot and characters unique by flipping ideas or inventing an interesting approach to the story.
  • What’s at stake in the story? What do the characters have to win or lose if they do not achieve their goals?
  • What are the characters’ empathetic traits that an audience will root for?
  • Authenticity and plausibility are vital in order for readers to take a leap of faith and become engaged in a script. Does the world and plot that you are creating feel authentic?
  • What do the characters want versus need? Examples: Fame? Fortunate? Love?
  • What do the characters learn at the end of the script? Examples: Humility? Confidence? Courage?
  • What are the characters’ flaws? Examples: Lust, greed, lack of confidence, envy, pride, loss of hope?
  • How do the characters’ flaws change as the plot unfolds? Examples: Do they improve? Worsen?
  • What is challenging the characters’ flaws and compelling them to transform?
  • What are the major questions posed for the characters? Examples: Will he ever find love? Will she discover the truth about her ancestry?
  • What is the inciting incident: What event sets the plot in motion? Examples: Maybe the main character finds a hidden treasure or gets lost in the woods.
  • What makes today different than any other day for the main characters?
  • What are the characters’ secrets and when is the best time to reveal them?

Writing and/or writing and directing a short film can open doors to the film industry. You can use it as your calling card in several ways:

1) as a writing sample to submit to agents and managers;
2) to enter into competitions that are seeking short screenplays and/or short films;
3) to collaborate with aspiring directors and producers;
4) to continue to craft your writing and/or writing and directing skills;
5) to test an idea out for a feature; and 6) to include as a show reel as part of your portfolio.

Take a look at Creating the Short Film, an online workshop, to get a leg up on your short film script.

Sign up for Screenwriters University's online class
Creating the Short Film


creating short film

What You'll Learn:

  • How to convey a compelling story in a short amount of time.
  • Tools on raising the stakes in the plot.
  • How to avoid common pitfalls when writing short films.
  • Structural strategies.
  • How to make the most of visual storytelling.
  • Tips on creating a page-turner.
  • Advice on how to develop multi-dimensional characters.
  • Insights for writing gripping scenes.
  • Techniques to make action paragraphs jump off the page.
  • Tools to write dialogue that will define each character.