Short but Sweet

Writing a fifteen minute script for my application has really transformed the way I think about short films. I have to admit that in the past I’ve never naturally been drawn to the short form of anything (apart from exercise classes). One of my favourite novelists is Donna Tartt, whose epic, ten-years-to-write novels also double as handy doorstops. I like to lose myself in a story, and I’m always secretly pleased when I see that a film I’m about to watch is over the two hour mark – and not just because French cinema tickets are really expensive.

I understand that it’s just as difficult, if not more so, to tell a story and create an emotional connection with an audience in such a short time frame. I’ve even heard it said that the short form is more suited to the E-generation’s ADD-level attention span. I’ve just always been a little ambiguous (Raymond Carver notwithstanding). But I realised that if I was going to write a short film then I would need to understand what it is that makes them special. How are they different from feature films? What can they do that longer films can’t? Why choose to tell a story in this way and, most importantly, what are the essentials of a good short film?

I started with a simple search in Google: How to write a good short film. The first two links were, oddly enough, to lists entitled “7 rules” or “7 simple secrets” for making a successful short film, so since seven has always been my (and David Beckham’s) lucky number, I decided this was a good place to start.

I’ve never come across this online magazine before but I bookmarked it straight away because a) the last two pieces of advice in this list made me completely transform the ending of my fledgling short script by far for the better, and b) the writer (Timothy Cooper) posts links to three excellent short films, all of which helped me to better understand not only why I would want to write, but why an audience would enjoy a short film.

When I search in google ‘what is the point of short films’, every single article on the first page of results refers to the benefit of short films for writers and how they can help you advance your career. As Timothy Cooper says, “it’s probably the best calling card for an upcoming writer or director. Creating a strong short is one of the easiest ways to start out on the festival circuit, prove a feature concept, or get commercial work.”

But what about the audience? Watching the three shorts linked to on script mag made me see that short films are so much more than just a writer’s calling card. Slice of life and snapshot are words that are probably overly used when describing short films, but it’s true that they give the audience a chance to swoop down on a moment in one or two characters’ lives, people from worlds or walks of life that they would never normally see into, and learn something about these people and hopefully themselves in the process. At other times they make you think about your own life and your own mistakes. Table 7, for example, by Marco Slavnic and Andrew McDonald is less than 5 minutes long but says so much about the time we waste on pointless arguments, in such a simple, engaging and original way. The Lunch Date, which we were shown on the course I took at the Met Film School, makes us think about the presumptions we make about others every day of our lives, and the more I think about Six Shooter by Martin McDonagh the more I think it is about choosing to hang onto life even in the darkest moments, because in the absence of faith, life is all we have.

Of course they can also be funny, romantic, absurd, beautiful, quirky or terrifying, just like a feature film. But the point I like most about short films is the way they focus on just one or two characters and their dilemma or conflict, without subplots or diversions or minor characters to distract us. In this way they are something you can lose yourself completely in, because from the moment they begin we are dropped straight into this little world and are gripped entirely until the resolution.

At least, that’s what we as writers should be aiming for.

I’ve come across some brilliant resources while researching and watching short films – a few of them are shared below but I’ll add to them the more I find. I’m really excited to watch as many as I can and keep learning about what makes them work.


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