A short script can’t just be a feature condensed into smaller perimeters — the same way a feature script can’t just be a lengthened short. They are two different beasts to tackle — complete with different structures, different pacing, and different end results.
Here we look at the differences between these two types of screenplays and explore the ways in which screenwriters should approach them.
Screenplays are cinematic blueprints for film, thus they have to be quantified in the eventual running length of a film that is to follow.
Short scripts run anywhere from two pages to forty pages. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a short film as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits.” The general rule of thumb is that each script page equals one minute of screen time — give or take — so thirty-five to forty pages is generally the limit of what would be accepted as a short screenplay.
Feature scripts run anywhere from 80 to 130 pages, according to the general guidelines and expectations of the film industry — especially for up-and-coming screenwriters. Anything less is not enough and anything more is far beyond what is needed in the industry’s eyes.
Beyond the obvious length of eventual cinematic running time, the condensed and lengthened script page perimeters of short and feature-length scripts also affect the time that the characters and stories exist in our eyes and minds.
With short scripts, we don’t get to spend as much time with those characters we create. So within those perimeters, it’s very important that what we do show conveys the type of character in either the most broad of strokes or in the most specific single strokes because the short script structure does not allow for the time to indulge.
With feature scripts, there’s time. It’s as simple as that. But because there is more time to fill within those feature pages, what we do share has to be compelling and drawn out enough to keep the interest of the audience.
Short scripts don’t have time to build tension. They don’t have time to build the concept. Instead, the concept must be introduced and delivered with a quick but impactful resolution for the characters. There’s no such thing as slow burn in a short script.
Feature scripts have to more so master the art of pacing to keep a concept engaging. Screenwriters need to throw in more twists, turns, misdirects, and red herrings to keep the pacing of the story going. You can’t show your hand too quickly and you can’t wait too long to reveal it either.
So short scripts offer the writer the chance to get in and get to the point quick — with impact — while feature scripts offer the benefit of being able to include and develop more into the mix.
Short scripts can only give us a glimpse into a character’s life — really just a brief moment — where features can allow us to really go through something with them.
In features, we are often introduced to the characters at their best or worst. And then we get to see them go through the changes that the inciting incident and many conflicts of the script force them to deal with — for better or worse.
Shorts force us to just briefly observe the characters for the most part. A majority of the time, we know little to nothing about them. We just watch as usually a single major conflict is thrown at them and they are forced to get through it. There is little time for A, B, and C characters that feature scripts can branch out to. Instead, short scripts focus only on those core characters that have direct purpose for whatever the central concept is.
In short — pun intended — with feature scripts we get to sit down with the characters and spend some time getting to know them while with short scripts, we just pass by them during a moment of their lives and continue on without being able to look back for more.
Because there are no A, B, and C character branches to follow in a short script, there are also no A, B, and C stories to follow simultaneously, like those you find in features.
Short scripts aren’t even comprised of complete A stories either. Instead, they show, again, just a glimpse of that A story.
Imagine Dunkirk as a short film.
Instead of seeing the storylines of Tommy (The Mole storyline), Mr. Dawson and his son Peter (The Sea storyline), and Farrier and Collins (The Air storyline), as well as all of the other B and C characters within those storylines, we’d have to choose between one of those three story elements.
And when we’d choose one, we’d have to then select a specific moment within that story to portray.
For example, if we choose the Tommy story, we’d perhaps select his opening escape from the ambush and follow that up with him appearing on the beach and seeing troops awaiting evacuation.
He then meets Gibson, who appears to be burying a fallen soldier.
After a German dive-bomber attack, they happen upon an injured man left for dead and rush his stretcher across the beach in hopes of circumventing the line of soldiers awaiting transport.
They try to get onto a hospital ship, but are denied passage themselves.
The ship is attacked, and in the chaos they save another soldier, Alex. At night, they depart on another ship. Those within enjoy sandwiches and are relieved to be off that beach.
But then that ship is attacked.
The story would have to stop there.
We’d miss Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant reviewing the situation. We’d miss the storyline of the navy requisitioning civilian vessels that can get closer to the beach. We’d miss Alex, Tommy, and Gibson joining a group of Scottish soldiers that head for a trawler beyond the Allied perimeter. We’d miss them hiding inside until the tide rises and everything that follows that — not to mention the sea and air storylines.
Therein lies the major difference between short scripts and feature scripts. It’s not about obvious page and time differences. It’s not about fewer or more characters. It’s about the structure of the stories and how those elements affect that structure.
So What Did We Learn?
Short scripts are more than what they appear to be. They are not just one scene of a feature script, nor are they just a condensed version of any given story. They have a specific structure to them that focuses on getting to the true core of a character, theme, and concept.
Some would falsely determine that writing a short script would be more difficult to write because there’s much less time to convey a story with sufficient scope while others would equally falsely state that shorts are easier to write because you have less to write, develop, and convey.
Feature scripts allow for many different structure types and variances beyond the three-act structure while short scripts are generally forced to adhere to a stripped down version of the three act structure.
One such example would be:
- Act One: The Set-Up
- Act Two — Characters Enter Point of No Return
- Act Three — Final Resolution
The setup is simply the who, where, and what’s happening opening.
The point of no return is where the character(s) has made a decision or has gone so far where they either need to face the conflict or face dire circumstances. This, of course, can be adapted into situations and conflicts found in any genre, be it horror, thriller, mystery, comedy, or drama.
The final resolution is just that — the end.
Feature scripts can explore the three-act structure through multiple levels that include multiple characters and story lines while short scripts are forced to focus just on a segment of that three-act structure — usually leading to a major, transformative event for the main character and stopping there, when a feature would likely take that character forward even more.
To break the difference between short scripts and feature scripts down to its ultimate core, one could argue that short scripts are more centered on portraying a direct theme or message while the feature script is more centered on exploring that direct theme or message from all angles.
As you can see, short scripts and feature scripts are two different beasts indeed.
From a learning perspective, short scripts aren’t necessarily perfect warm-ups for writing features. Instead, they prepare screenwriters to write amazing moments within features — something that needs to be mastered because each and every scene and sequence in a feature script must perform as a perfect piece to the puzzle.
So don’t write short scripts thinking that you are preparing yourself for features — you’re not. Instead, write short scripts to prepare yourself to write amazing scenes, moments, and sequences within a feature script.
For more on differences between different writing platforms, check out ScreenCraft’s Five Major Differences Between Writing Novels and Screenplays and 5 Reasons Short Stories Are Easier to Adapt Than Novels!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies