Feature films tend to get most of the glory among filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore short film as a medium! In a new series of Insights articles, Ian Kennedy looks at the benefits of writing in this format. Here, we take a look at how to structure a short film.
In the first article in this series, we looked at why you would want to write a short film – but once you’ve decided to do so, what’s the next stage? There are a lot of advantages to making a short, but how are you supposed to fit a story into such a short number of pages? Well, before you start coming up with ideas, you might actually want to think about how to structure a short film first…
Two vs Three-Act Structure
When writing a feature film, a classic three-act structure is usually the way to go. It basically looks like this:
- Act 1 – Setup. Here you introduce your characters and world, and get the story rolling.
- Act 2 – Conflict. This is where most of the story happens, and where things stand in the way of the protagonist getting what they want.
- Act 3 – Resolution. The characters must overcome the final hurdle, defeat their enemies, and win the day… or lose it.
So for example, in Star Wars, Act 1 sees Luke Skywalker on his home planet of Tatooine, Act 2 has him trying to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star, and in Act 3 he must defeat the Empire once and for all.
When writing a short film, it’s still a good idea to aim for this structure – but there’s also another alternative. For short films, you can also use a structure that only has two acts – a structure that doesn’t work for a longer film at all! A story with a two-act structure is quite simple, since it has the same basic structure as a joke:
- Act 1 – Setup…
- Act 2 – Punchline!
In a two-act structure, you basically cut out the middle. You make a promise to the audience in the first act, and then fulfil that promise in the second – this has the advantage of asking them to connect the dots between the two themselves, which makes them involved and ultimately rewards them for being invested.
But whichever structure you use, the real key to writing a successful short is to trust your audience that you don’t have to explain everything to them. Use our unconscious knowledge and expectations to shortcut as much exposition and world-class building as possible.
So in conclusion, when making a short film, you need to match your concept to the structure. You don’t have to use three acts in short format because there’s another option; if your concept is something simple that functions like a joke, with a setup and a punchline, then two acts will also work. And above all, let the audience fill in the bits of the story there’s not enough time for, so that you can keep your short screenplay… well, short!
Take a look at our other Writing Insights articles here for great hints and tips on crafting your scripts!
How to give Producers, Executives and Publishers what they say they want
If you haven’t already, check out Part One here!
In the first part of this article, Ian Kennedy wrote about how stories always show us an important aspect of life. Finding your voice as a writer involves recognizing the aspect you’re exploring and expressing it through the choices you make in your story…
This is a key tool in focusing your script – to ensure that everything that’s in it shows clear choices by the writer which each reveal different, important and often subtle features of that aspect of life which they’ve decided to explore. What choices you make, and how you present them (i.e. your style, another little-understood word that is often used by producers, execs and publishers), gives your writing its voice.
Here are some examples, they’re all just my own interpretations and summations of the stories mentioned but you’ll get the idea:
- “It’s about how life can be brutal and cruel.” This leads us to: “GAME OF THRONES explores a vivid fantasy world that is brutal and cruel, but where you can thrive if you’re tough enough, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
- “It’s about how life can be threatened by chaos and injustice.” This leads us to: “BATMAN battles a world where criminals and injustice threaten to turn our civilization to chaos.”
- “It’s about how life can be determined by what’s in your heart.” This leads us to: “STAR WARS is about how even the biggest cosmic battles come down to the goodness or darkness in people’s hearts.”
- “It’s about how life can be trapped in eternal childhood for some people.” This leads us to STEPBROTHERS, and other comedies.
- “It’s about how having the biggest brain doesn’t always make life easier.” THE BIG BANG THEORY.
- “It’s about how some people have special abilities or powers and have to decide how to use them right.” – Any superhero story. (Technically, Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, but hey, he’s rich and runs a huge tech-innovation company, so that’s the next best thing.)
For me, it’s both the choice of the aspect of life they want to explore, and the way that they then go on to explore it, which gives the writer their “voice”. Make a conscious choice about the aspect of life you want to explore, the many forms it takes and how you can dramatize those in a way that feels convincing (within the internal logic of your story world – even if that’s a silly or surreal one like MONTY PYTHON), and show how that aspect of life creates dilemmas and issues with important repercussions for your characters and their story world, which you can resolve in a way that shows your conclusions about these questions, and give us an answer we can go away with. As McKee explains, it could be a “This means that this”, a “This means that this, but also means this”, etc.
So for choosing your ending, this comes down to the ‘moral of the story’: your ending should reflect the message and new understanding you want us to take away from the story about life, particularly about ‘life in a world like the one we see in this story’. A message like, “in a world like this, hope always triumphs” or “in a world like this, hope is an illusion”. And you should focus your story on exploring all the features of the aspect of life you’re exploring, and bring us to a conclusion that’s both dramatically, emotionally, and intellectually satisfying conclusion which gives an answer to the big questions you’ve asked.
I believe that all great writing teaches us something about the world, that we didn’t already know or hadn’t understood in this way before. That’s why we want to live out alternative lives through characters and worlds that – if we’re honest – we’d run a mile away from ever having to live as. From their struggles and dilemmas, we take back lessons that enrich and inform our lives, for the better. Even grim stories, enrich our understanding of life for the better, and help resolve us not to let our world turn out that way.
In all of this, the writer’s voice is revealed, and proves itself to be unique. So. Focus your writing on what I’ve explained here, and as you’re applying it to every passage of your work, ask yourself whether your telling of this is fully convincing. Because that’s then the main obstacle to getting greenlit, once you’ve found your voice and proven yourself as a writer.
Develop your voice as a writer with even more in-depth advice from an industry expert: check out our Elite Mentoring and script development services!
How to give Producers, Executives and Publishers what they say they want
When they’re answering questions about what they’re looking for in a script or book, you’ll often hear producers, execs and publishers claiming that the vital quality they look for in writing is the unique voice of the writer. I’ve heard this one a lot, and even when asked what they mean, they’ve rarely given any kind of definition to help writers go away with confidence of what they need to do.
But I read hundreds of scripts a year, watch plenty of productions in lots of genres, and help other writers improve their work every day. So here, I think, is a useful definition of where a writer’s voice comes from in their writing, and how they can “own it” and come across as unique and commissionable.
Firstly, it’s vital to recognize that all stories show us an aspect of life – hopefully an important or stimulating/entertaining one. (Why does nature reward us with laughter for recognizing things that are counterintuitive, ie funny? Because it’s stimulating and therefore expands our understanding of the world – which better equips us to survive and thrive in it. Comedy is not frivolous, it’s vital.)
So, recognizing the aspect of life you’re exploring in your story, can be expressed in one simple sentence:
“It’s about how life can be (funny/perverse/brutal/arbitrary/beautiful/whatever!)”
You should be able to pick a word or phrase to finish that sentence, which encapsulates the theme, tone and underlying logic of what kinds of thing happen in your story and why they happen. This is a key tool in focusing your script – to ensure that everything that’s in it shows clear choices by the writer which each reveal different, important and often subtle features of that aspect of life which they’ve decided to explore.
What choices you make, and how you present them (i.e. your style, another little-understood word that is often used by producers, execs and publishers), gives your writing its voice.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article, in which Ian goes into ever greater depth about a writer’s voice, the moral of a story, and how to write a great ending…
In films such as AVATAR, THE PLANET OF THE APES, and even the recent BLADE RUNNER 2049, not to mention TV series like WESTWORLD, we are starting to see that more and more humans as bad guys. In cinema’s constant hunt for new villains, stories reflect how we’ve banished the monsters and hazards from our real world, only to find our worst demons in the mirror and deep inside ourselves.
But why are big Hollywood companies risking hundreds of millions on films where the main villain is, well, us? Why would they risk it all, on us paying to go and blame ourselves for what’s wrong in their fictional worlds? Cinemas are usually the place we go for escapism – to get away from what’s happening on the news. If people are causing so much bad news, why would we want to see that amplified on screen?
In AVATAR, we enter an idyllic eco-topia where all nature – however scary – turns out to be symbiotic, and the threat comes from the human invaders who are determined to ravage the planet for its resources. Our protagonist is human – but lives most of his life in the film as a Nav’i and joins with the planet’s forces against the humans.
In the most recent PLANET OF THE APES trilogy, the human-centric story of the 1968 original – which saw humans struggling to survive in an society ruled by apes – is not merely discarded but inverted. We now find ourselves primarily following the ape CAESAR, who fights to lead his people to safety in a world where they are hated and feared by human beings.
And in BLADE RUNNER 2049, Ryan Gosling’s character – like Harrison Ford’s before him, we finally confirm – is the latest in a long string of replicant assassins employed to kill his own kind, to protect humans from the repercussions of their own creations. The story’s sympathies are clearly with the replicants, not the humans, taking the established Blade Runner theme of ‘what it means to be human’ to a new level.
Volcanoes: less often the villain now than humans.
Just watch a news broadcast, and ask yourself ‘who are the villains here?’, and ‘what’s causing the problems here?’. Apart from earthquakes and volcanos, you’ll usually only get one answer: people. Even when the problem is ‘nature’, like fires and hurricanes, we’re slowly having to admit that actually yeah, we are making things worse, putting ourselves in the firing line when we could live in safer places, and even causing many problems in the first place. A constant flow of research articles and bad-news stories tells us that we humans have enormous influence over the world around us, even if we can’t control it or ourselves.
This is reflected – unsubtly – in AVATAR. Like the earthly colonialists of recent centuries, the humans in AVATAR arrive under the guise of exploitative “trade”, backed up by formidable military intent. Like Vikings and colonialists of our world in past centuries, they are determined to get their way – whether peacefully or by violence. They come to a thriving tropical word, and pillage it for their own needs – sound familiar? The devastation caused by the humans is felt equally by the native species, the animals and even the plants, and this causes some humans to change sides and help the victims, like how people today try to help ‘save the rhinos’. The rest of the movie is totally told from the side of the natives, who our protagonist joins and even becomes.
In the news, we’ve also seen the tribal biases of the past starting to give way to a more balanced view. News stories used to put us solidly on one side of the important divides of the time (humans good, nature dangerous; ‘Western countries’ good, ‘Eastern countries’ bad; ‘civilization’ good, ‘primitive’ cultures bad…). But decades of peace in most of the world have given us the time to take a better look at ourselves, instead of ganging up together against the ‘other’. In fact, these days the news agenda and emphasis is mostly on the victims of war, crimes and abuse (such as sexual harassment or other cruel things done by ‘bad people’ to ‘innocent people’), and we’re much more suspicious than supportive of our leaders and politicians.
In most countries, the news media now is much more likely than before to take the side of victims, and even to fight to tell their story, rather than helping governments and powerful people cover up their abuses and mistakes – even if it often takes famous cases to bring much more widespread everyday abuses into the public eye, such as the Hollywood sexual harassment revelations focusing on the “big name” perpetrators and victims. In the past, history was always written about ‘great men’ who dominated their times. But these days, we emphathize more with the victim than the powerful aggressor. Filmmakers are using this angle in their films to reflect this concern by giving center stage to the victim of a story as opposed to whoever is causing the damage.
Top filmmakers will take the element of escapism and use it to reflect what is going on in the real world. They’re just tapping into the underlying messages behind our modern world and the news we consume every day. These films work because they tap into what we’re preoccupied with, what we now recognize, or think we understand, about the real underlying logic of our world. Filmmakers and production companies have to respond to our modern fears, expectations, preoccupations and feelings in order to tap in to them, get ahead of the curve, and create a cinematic experience that will stick with us. People who aren’t interested in GAME OF THRONES mostly assume it’s ‘just a fantasy story’, when actually it takes the world of fantasy and spins it, to tell vivid stories about some very modern preoccupations – female empowerment, and the brutality of fate – that they’d probably be a lot more interested in.
Why, though, are we happy to go see a film that villainizes humans rather than the aliens or monsters of past films? Well, nowadays people are more open minded than we used to be – peace makes that possible. Where we used to see other cultures as dangerously different, we can now recognize them as the victims of our own culture and values.
THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy mostly works well as a piece of superhero escapism and a reflection of our fears of domestic chaos and terrorism. AVATAR succeeds with its outlandish sci-fi setting and the eco-allegory about rainforests and nature in a symbiotic but fragile harmony.
So, like us, many Hollywood and filmmakers have recognized that humans are the problem – that we are the only real bad guys in this world, now we’ve crushed the monsters and natural environments that created so many threats to us in the past. They are now using this to tell stories from the point of view of humans’ victims, to create compelling stories where we can empathize with the characters victimized by people like us, and recognize the demons and drives within ourselves that cause problems for others in the world.
Then again, maybe it’s just because humans have got so powerful in our own world that we don’t have many other places to turn when we’re looking for villains and excuses for blockbuster mega-stories. Either way, it works.
After spending just over two years with us, we give our thanks to Jamie White as he pursues pastures new…
It’s been a great couple of years with WriteMovies. I came across their 8-week virtual internship by chance, and that was the portal to so many opportunities, some I wouldn’t have even thought about!
I’ve had the chance to work on script consultancies, pitching materials, meet producers, work on a couple of film projects, write reviews, Insights articles, and, of course, converse with a load of you writers!
Before I sign off, I thought I’d share a few of my highlights from the past couple of years – not all my work, but some real great stuff.
- INSIGHTS: Genre and what it really tells us. This is one of the first articles Ian Kennedy wrote while I was training as a script analyst. I love a good chat on genre, what makes a genre, semantics, syntactics. But this article really helped me to understand the pragmatics of genre (bloody Altman…) and it’s such a good guide for how you should be writing your genre script.Check it out here!
- GAME OF THRONES Season 7 Review. After a little while, and quite a few script consultancies, I got more chances to write reviews and critical pieces for the site. My GAME OF THRONES season 7 review was one of my earlier reviews, but I think still one of my faves. I got to review one of my favorite shows (though probably its worst season) AND revealed one of my very own conspiracy theories – that Sony were releasing trash like THE EMOJI MOVIE to deter hackers – tell me that doesn’t make sense!Check out my GoT ramblings here.
- Writing for Video Games Articles. From one of my first, to one of my last… My Writing for Video Games articles. I may enjoy the medium of video games more than film and television, so it was a joy to get the chance to write about this topic and give you guys some advice at the same time. I hope you game writers take some inspiration from these articles.Read the first article here.
- Attending Pitch Meetings. I’ve had the rare and exciting opportunities to attend several meetings with film producers to talk about the prospects of several of our winning scripts coming to life. Sure, I was the sidekick to our Director of World Wide Development, Ian Kennedy, but attending these sorts of meetings have been vital to my development. I got to see first hand how you should be pitching, what sort of language and tactics to employ. A great opportunity and a great experience. Loved it!
- Reading your scripts… From my start with the internship, to the very end, the one constant has been the chance to read, analyze and judge the scripts you guys have sent in for contests and consultancies. Seriously, some of these scripts I could really visualize, some to an extent I could imagine the cinematography to their inevitable film. Some really were THAT good. I wish the writers that we’re developing now get to realize their dreams – if just one of these scripts gets made, that would truly make my time with WriteMovies a success (not that it hasn’t been anyway!)
Writers need to feel this connection to these characters too – it is only through your characters that audiences can connect with your story and theme.
“Writers need to feel this connection to these characters too – it is only through your characters that audiences can connect with your story and theme.” – The follow up article to “Insights: Character Driven Storytelling” by Ian Kennedy, WriteMovies Director of World Wide Development. (more…)
Writing Insights: Character Driven Storytelling – your characters, your protagonists, your antagonists, are the ones who need to drive your story
“The antagonist needs to be a stronger driver of the plot than the protagonist in several ways – to provide a threat and complications for the protagonist, to create conflict and hence create an engaging story with high stakes…” By Ian Kennedy, WriteMovies Director of Worldwide Development.
Individual character motivations are often taken for granted by writers who think they have a well-executed plot – and these scripts are often marked by undistinctive characters who behave predictably (“this is what a hero would do”, “we need her to say this for the sake of the plot”). But it is usually due to the characters’ own drive and commitment to the story that the plot actually involves us and works. Character-driven storytelling is an important part of making a connection with the audience: if it’s not the characters themselves who are driving the story forward at every point, the story feels fake and forced and artificial.