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How To Write A Short Film: A 13 Step Guide

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and you’re unsure about how to write a short film, this step-by-step guide is all you need to start you on your journey.

how to write a short film

How To Write A Short Film – Step 1:

Shaping The Central Idea

It’s important to remember that short films often excel within confined timeframes.

These types of narratives often unfold in real-time over a few minutes, for an afternoon, or over twenty-four hours, for example.

In this timeframe, short films often focus on a specific problem or situation. As a writer, you should ask yourself the question of “what if…?” to help find your central idea.

For example…

What if someone who is obsessed with cheese runs out of cheese?

This questions forms the basis of Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out...

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How To Write A Short Film – Step 2:

Develop Your Characters

Once you’ve asked yourself the question of “what if?”, the next question is “who to?”

In other words, the main thing to focus on is who are your main characters?

When thinking about how to write a short film, many writers get fixated on developing exactly what happens in their story and start plotting out all the sequential events before they even consider who is involved in their narrative.

Thinking about contradictions is a great way to build depth and complexity into your characters. Writing contradictions into your characters helps to avoid clichéd archetypes.

Contradictions make your characters more human and provide the opportunity to develop conflict in your story.

Take Wallace and Gromit, for example.

Wallace is an eccentric, good-natured and enthusiastic inventor. He’s highly skilled but often lacks common sense and, as a result, is prone to accidental chaos.

Gromit is Wallace’s silent companion. He’s intelligent, resourceful and loyal despite his intermittent scepticism towards his owner. 

how to write a short film a grand day out

How To Write A Short Film –  Step 3:

Write A Logline To Shape Your Story 

The unification of “what if” and “who to” can lead you towards planning what happens in your actual story.

Now, you can start to think about your logline.

A logline is a concise one-to-two-sentence summary that encapsulates the core premise, main conflict, and unique elements of a screenplay or film.

It’s important at this stage to think about how the way your character reacts to the situation they’re in, which reveals who they are as an individual.

For A Grand Day Out, the logline goes like this:

To replenish their depleted supply of cheese, inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit travel to the moon in a homemade rocket ship.

how to write a short film a grand day out

Outline Your Short Film – Step 5:

Act One – The Inciting Incident

Outlining your story is a much more effective approach than simply diving into the script with a vague impression of what happens.

For beginners, using a three-act model will help to bring some structure to your own short film.

In a short film, it’s best to enter the story as late as possible, immediately throwing your character into action.

There’s very little time for exposition at the start, and it’s essential to grasp your audience’s attention as quickly as possible.

This problem comes in the form of an “inciting incident”.

This is a pivotal event or moment in a story that sets the protagonist’s life off balance.

This moment poses a “dramatic question” which the narrative promises to answer by its ending.

Note that the inciting incident doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing and could also positively benefit the character’s life, such as winning the lottery.

In Wallace and Gromit’s “A Grand Day Out,” the inciting incident occurs when they run out of cheese, whilst the “dramatic question” is “Will Wallace and Gromit find cheese to eat that night?”

Outline Your Short Film – Step 6:

Act One – The Reaction 

The character’s reaction to the inciting incident reveals your character, reflects the tone and sets up the narrative direction for the rest of the story.

Wallace is the kind of man who uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut. His disproportionate reaction to running out of cheese is to build a rocket ship and travel to the moon.

This approach is inherently comedic, which reflects the story’s genres of comedy/adventure.

Regardless of the character’s reaction, encountering conflict is crucial. In screenwriting, conflict refers to obstacles hindering the character’s progress.

For Wallace and Gromit, conflict arises during the construction of their rocket ship, which introduces challenges at every step of the process.

Outline Your Short Film – Step 7:

Act Two – Crossing The Threshold

The break into Act Two marks a crucial shift in the three-act structure, symbolising the protagonist’s departure from the familiar world into the unknown.

In Wallace and Gromit’s adventure, this occurs as they prepare for launch. 

In your own writing, you must think about what conflict may emerge at this moment in the script.

For Wallace and Gromit, the conflict develops as they realise they’ve forgotten the crackers, an unforgivable error for any cheese-lover.

Thankfully, after a tense sequence, Wallace makes it back to the ship just in time. The characters take off, crossing the threshold into an unknown world.

Outline Your Short Film – Step 8:

Act Two – The Midpoint & The Gap

At this stage, it’s useful to consider storytelling guru Robert McKee’s principle of “the gap”, which emphasises the dynamic between a character’s expectation and their reality.

Simply put, when a character takes action, they expect a certain result to their action. However, good storytelling often creates a gap between their expectations and what occurs in reality. 

This principle is important to remember, as it injects twists and turns in your story, which keeps the audience engaged by constantly throwing the narrative in new directions.

In the context of Wallace and Gromit’s adventure, the midpoint serves as a structural milestone highlighting the principle of expectation vs reality.

Their initial expectation to find cheese on the moon undergoes a significant shift as they realise the moon doesn’t actually taste cheese.

This realisation reframes the story’s dramatic question, introducing a new layer of complexity and contributing to the overall narrative development.

Adding to the intrigue, Wallace and Gromit encounter a robot that lives on the moon.

When the robot finds a skiing brochure in Wallace’s basket, it becomes fixated on the notion of skiing, which creates more conflict that further propels the story forward.

Outline Your Short Film – Step 9:

Act Three – The Climax

Your story’s action should build towards a final confrontation, where the initial dramatic question will be answered, for better or worse.

Quite often, the stakes are raised here, as the cost of failure or success is heightened by the events that have happened in the second act.

In A Grand Day Out, the robot attempts to make a return to Earth alongside Wallace and Gromit, nearly sabotaging the rocket ship in the process, which would leave the story’s characters stranded on the moon.

Outline Your Short Film – Step 10:

Act Three – The Resolution

The resolution phase in a three-act structure marks the culmination of the story, where the primary conflicts are addressed, and the narrative threads are tied together.

It provides a sense of closure by resolving the central issues and answering the overarching dramatic question posed earlier in the story.

In A Grand Day Out, Wallace and Gromit return home in their rocket ship with a basket full of moon cheese, whilst the robot fashions skis out of metal strips it has torn from the rocket ship.

how to write a short film a grand day out

How To Write A Short Film – Step 11:

Writing A Scene List

At this stage, you’ll have a detailed outline of the plot points in your story, and you can move on to developing your scene list.

The scene list can consist of one to two sentences that briefly outlines what happens in the scene.

It’s important to focus on how something changes in the narrative as a result of the scene’s action.

Otherwise, your scenes will consist of characters exchanging information with each other, which lacks conflict and is boring to watch.

How To Write A Short Film – Step 12:

Writing The Script

Once you’ve got your scene list, you can get into the nuts and bolts of writing the script. 

Remember to use subtext in the dialogue as much as possible, and use visual storytelling rather than having your characters deliver information through their dialogue

How To Write A Short Film – Step 13:

The Rewriting Process

The old adage goes that ‘writing is rewriting’. To push you along this process, it’s important to get valuable feedback on your script.

Whilst it can be useful to get thoughts from family and friends, their feedback can only go so far.

To get technical, actionable notes on your short film script, you can choose to have your script looked over by a professional script consultant.

As a screenplay consultant associated with the British Film Institute, I’ve given notes on over 1,000 screenplays.

I offer comprehensive script coverage, offering insights on how you can move your project forward for whatever stage you’re at in the process.

If you’re eager to receive expert notes on your screenplay, click the button below to browse my services or ask a question about how I can help you today.

Nick Fore Script Doctor / Script Consultant

Nick Fore is an experienced script consultant who reads screenplays for the British Film Institute.

He has written comprehensive coverage on over 1,000 scripts and has helped screenwriters get their work into development with production companies such as Imagine Entertainment and Screen Ireland. 

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