4 Short Story Elements to Help You Write a Great Short Film

by Ben Larned - updated on September 8, 2020

So you want to make a film. We all know how expensive and arduous this process can be, even with equipment more accessible than ever. Sometimes, when resources are low, it’s far better to make a good short instead of a sloppy feature. It seems like less work, too - how hard can it be to capture a good 10 minutes when most films we engage with are over 90?

The answer: much harder.

Because in order to take attention away from a typically more complete, satisfying feature, short films must be even more skilled at what they do - with lean, direct, and powerful stories that establish character, world and conflict almost instantaneously. The process is intimidating at best, confounding at worst. Trying to fit an entire universe of fiction into 10 minutes can be, frankly, challenging for your mental health.

But people have been telling short stories for centuries. Some of our most iconic works of fiction don’t breach 10 pages. They may not be films, but when setting out to craft a meaningful story, sometimes it’s best to look at the originals: the narratives that, in spite of their brevity, continue to impact people long after their creators have passed.

Have a brilliant short story that needs to be read? Enter the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Screenplay Contest here.

To start, let’s look at...

1. The Text

Reading classic short stories can remind us how simple they really are. A short film’s only job is to introduce us to a direct, recognizable world, then turn that world on its head in a way that reveals something about it. These stories teach structure, detail and plot; by examining how they conceal their twists and develop their world in a way that allows for them, one can achieve a similar impact, through visuals and sound.

Of course, writing a screenplay is an entirely different craft than writing a prose story. Adapting literary practices for film, however, can add a sharpness and classicism to your short that will stand out amongst a lineup of looser offerings. People watch films to experience a story, whether for several hours or just a few minutes; and seeing how these classic stories work provides invaluable guidance. They all have the same elements, after all.

And few elements are more elusive, but more vital, than...

2. The Hook

This is true of any length of storytelling, but without a hook, you don’t have a strong short film. It’s an immense task to build a world, personality and narrative in a small space, though the practice is especially worthwhile: the hook must support all of this information in a clear, revelatory way.

The most unforgettable short stories all revolve around a simple inversion. Joyce Carol Oates’s Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? twists a recognizable summer day into a nightmare by adding a single out-of-place element, the satanic Arnold Friend. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry sets up a familiar situation - two poor lovers must get each other Christmas gifts - but upends it with an unexpected, profoundly simple twist. Raymond Carver’s Neighbors dismantles its characters in the span of a few pages, just by giving them a mundane object of fascination (the apartment next door). 

Let’s think of some of the world’s most iconic shorts. La Jetee operates around a single, powerful twist, which translated quite beautifully into Terry Gilliam’s feature adaptation, Twelve Monkeys. A Trip to the Moon is exactly what it sounds like - a promise of adventure and fantasy. Most of Pixar’s shorts draw from a one-sentence joke: an old man playing a game of chess with himself, a too-large bird trying to balance on a wire with a bunch of little ones. Whether silly or profound, the premise is always direct, and usually archetypal. It’s the hook - and the personality - that distinguish them from each other. Which brings us to...

3. The Character

Like a great “hook,” a great character revolves around a simple premise as well. The titular Puritan in Young Goodman Brown is devout and stubborn, which makes him a perfect breeding ground for the story’s paranoia. The same can be said for Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper - her narrator is already unhinged when the story starts, which adds a psychological layer that in turn justifies the surrealism. The subject of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues is a familiar pitiful figure, the drug-addicted artist, but the eloquence of his self-awareness makes him a profound figure.

Of course, prose allows for deep psychological exploration, while film is entirely based on sight and sound. That said, visual cues - both aesthetic and behavioral - can be just as evocative as a powerful line of thought. Study these stories and how they use movement or speech to establish character. Those actions can provide life and dimension to your script’s description, while still working within cinematic limitations.

The most important limitation, however, is...

4. The Length

This is where following a literary model can get tricky. Some of the world’s most important short stories - The Metamorphosis, Billy Budd, Jacob’s Room - would make feature films if adapted literally. Others never breach 10 pages. When writing a short film, tracing these stories’ outlines is far more productive - the longer your short, the harder it will be to find an audience.

Why is the limit so stringent? Many of the world’s most beloved short films edge on 30 minutes or more. This won’t fly at film festivals, where shorts programs usually come in under 90 minutes and need to feature a wide breadth of styles in order to feel satisfying. The shorter your film, the better chance you have at getting programmed, but it also means that the impact can be even stronger. In an era of media overload, the shortest and punchiest content is the stuff that tends to break through.

Watching commercials and trailers isn’t a bad practice when learning the trimming technique. While few of these products communicate a real story, they express mood, premise, function and origin through visuals and sound, usually in the confines of 60 seconds. If they can sell a product in this span of time, what kind of stories can you tell? There are also plenty of short stories - The Lottery, The Tell-Tale Heart, Araby - that come in under 10-15 pages but still make a hefty emotional impact. 

Determining how they achieve this isn’t easy - that’s part of what we love about stories, their mysteries and miracles - but the more one reads, the more one understands and can apply to their own work.

So, when sitting down to pen your first short, remember the traditions that have come before. With a hook, a character and a world in mind, all contained in a short timeframe, the mystery of short filmmaking becomes a challenge - a surmountable one. What’s to keep you from crafting a 10-minute masterpiece of your own?

BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbidden Tomes is published twice a month on Daily Dead. His short stories have been published in The Book of Blasphemous WordsDanse Macabre, and WitchWorks.

For all the latest ScreenCraft news and updates, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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