IFP so sweetly asked me to do a few write-ups on “Making Short Films”. I’m certainly not the expert by any means, but I can relay my own experiences and what works for me in case it helps anyone else.
Recently, I’ve had two short films play Sundance, Hellion (2012) and Black Metal (2013). And before that I had a children’s short film, Love Bug that played the kids’ festival circuit for several years. I’m a little all over the map with genre, but at the heart of it all, I just believe in a good story and interesting characters.
Writing a short film should take the effort of a feature. I’ll spend 10 drafts on a 6-page script just like I would on a feature script. I’ll use the same principles … three act structure, inciting incident, wants, flaws, character arcs, choices …
But the first thing I ask myself when approaching any project is “What makes this special?” What makes these characters and this story unique? Have we seen it before? If so, how can I flip it or take an interesting approach?” It certainly helps having been a shorts screener at a few festivals. You realize what people are making over and over and over again. Let’s just say zombies, gun toting drug deals gone bad, heavy abuse stories, the apocalypse, grim reapers, the afterlife … you get the point.
With that said, usually the first few ideas you have are the first few ideas everyone has. So go deeper. Make a list. Usually the crazier ideas you have that are further down that list are the more unique and interesting ones.
As far as approaching story structure, I’m a big fan of creating a pretty simple spine or backbone for all of my scripts. It doesn’t matter how insane or crazy or out there your script is, but what are the fundamentals? This is where I start.
Main Character: Which character has the biggest character arc? Who’s POV is this from?
Want: What does your character want? (Love? Acceptance? Fame? The Girl?) What kind of tangible goals do they have?
Flaw: What’s your character’s flaw? I always start with the seven deadly sins. Wrath, Sloth, Lust, Greed, Envy, Pride, Gluttony … and then thinking of things like lack of confidence or loss of faith. What is the internal flaw that my character is going to grow from throughout these five to ten minutes? Are they going from Pride to Humility? Or Lack of Confidence to Confidence? Or Wrath to Peace? What their flaw is and what they’re learning are the most important elements of any story. Basically how does your character change?
Inciting Incident: What is the event that changes this from any other day? What sets your story in motion? Is it discovering an alien? Or getting grounded? Or watching someone’s head explode?
Stakes: What’s at stake? What heightens this situation for us? What’s challenging our character’s flaw and forcing them to grow? What keeps us on the edge of our seat to find out what happens next? Will he tell her that he loves her? Will they get out of the cave alive?
Climax: What is the pinnacle of this story? What kind of situation can you put your character in so that they have to make a huge choice? What is this moment of crisis?
Choice: What’s the choice your character makes? Hopefully they’ve learned something and make a choice away from their flaw.
Learns: What does your character learn in the end? You want your character to change or grow, so usually what they learn is the opposite of their flaw. Confidence, selflessness, humility …
Theme: This is usually one word that I’ll hang my whole story on. On former projects those words have been: Strength, Fear, Monster, Manhood … this is the word I write on a post-it and tack to my computer. It’s a word I’ll come back to when I find myself in a rut with a specific detail … whether it’s what kind of job they go to, to what kind of stuffed animal they cart around. I go back to that one word.
I feel like if you can break your script down into really really simple terms, a word here or there for each of these things, it simplifies and demystifies the writing process. This is what really helps me.
But again, the most important question you should be asking yourself about your story or your film … “What makes this special?”
Kat Candler is writer-director based in Austin Texas, Kat’s award winning films have screened at Sundance, the Los Angeles Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, SXSW, Slamdance.�