Short films are one of the most deceptive mediums of filmmaking. Averaging somewhere between five and fifteen minutes, many people see short films as an easier way to start making films because you won't need to shoot as much material or tell a super complex story.
However, writing a good short film may end up proving to be more difficult than most people realize. Trying to tell a compelling story in only a short amount of time is far more challenging than most people expect. You have no time to waste when telling your story, and every moment really counts.
It's also difficult to come up with a short film idea simple enough that it can be told in only a few minutes but complex enough to keep your audience interested.
So, how do you come up with a winning idea for a great short film? We've compiled some tips to help you get the creative juices flowing.
Tip #1: Watch Lots of Short Films
Whether this is your first short film or you're a seasoned pro, this is probably the most important piece of advice you're going to get. To make a great short film, you're going to need to watch a lot of short films.
Not only does watching short films give you a great sampling of the kinds of stories filmmakers are telling in only a few minutes, but it also gives you an introduction to how short films are paced. The pacing in short films is very different from feature-length films since you have less time to tell your story.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that short films feel "faster" than feature-length films. Some filmmakers may choose to eliminate a lot of dialogue in favor of a more visual story that feels like it moves at a slower pace. Others may make their short film a non stop thrill ride packed into only a dozen or fewer minutes.
By watching lots of short films, you can begin to uncover the wealth of possibilities that exist within this limited timespan.
Now, where can you find great short films to watch? Well, streaming sites are always an option, as many have sections for short films, but one of the best places to watch the latest and greatest is at short film festivals. These take place all across the country and many are even incorporating streaming options into their festival offerings so you can watch the festival submissions from home.
You’ll get to watch works from independent filmmakers just like you and explore how they tackle different topics in the short film format, and use their visual content to tell the story when there’s not as much time for words.
Tip #2: Pull Inspiration From Your Own Experiences
It's age-old writing advice, but that's because it works. "Write what you know" has been repeated to authors of all kinds for generations, and that's because it's one of the best ways to come up with fresh, unique material that you genuinely connect with. Many people don't realize how many unique experiences and stories exist in their own personal lives.
Still feel like your life doesn't have anything interesting or unique to say? You can always use your personal experiences and then give them a unique twist. What would happen if, instead of showing up to work one day, you decided to take that highway exit towards New York City? What if you have never asked that girl out? Or what if you asked the girl out that you had always wanted to?
Stories like these are compelling for audiences because they're relatable. Almost everyone has been to a wedding or a funeral. Almost everyone has had a crush they wish had worked out. We all have those "what if?" moments in our own lives, and the short film format is a great way to explore some of these small moments.
Tip #3: Plan Stories Around Locations/Resources You Have On Hand
You may be able to write an incredibly compelling inter-planetary sci-fi short, but if you only have $3000 and two days available to film, it may not be the right short film script idea for you.
If you're planning on shooting your short film yourself, try looking around at locations and resources you already have on hand that you could write a story around.
Is your house or apartment the perfect setting for a certain type of character? Is there a hidden trail through some nearby woods that could make a great setting for some kind of adventure film?
Writing stories that work for locations and characters that you already have access to can save you both time and money and allow you to draw inspiration from environments you're already familiar with.
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Tip #4: Draw Inspiration from Historical Events
History is stuffed full of interesting characters and events, so this is a fantastic resource to draw ideas from. And don't think that if you're drawing inspiration from historical events, you have to write a period piece.
Use historical characters and events as the blueprint for elements in your story. Pick a topic you want to cover and look for inspiration or examples in history that you can use to further develop it. You could tell a modern story about a boy who had a similar upbringing to Albert Einstein. You can use examples of LGBTQ+ activists to help bring more depth to your modern characters who are planning a civil rights protest.
History is full of stories and is a great resource to draw inspiration from for your next film.
Tip #5: Have a Freewriting/Brainstorming Session
This can be done alone or with friends, but the purpose of these sessions is to help drag you out of an "I have no movie ideas whatsoever" rut. The only rule is: there are no rules. Grab your notebook and write down anything and everything that comes to mind without judgment or analysis for a certain amount of time.
It could be five, ten, fifteen minutes, even an hour. The idea is to just let your ideas flow and see what comes out. We often judge the ideas in our head too harshly and before they can be properly examined.
By allowing them to come out of our brains and onto paper without being dismissed, you get the opportunity to actually examine them and see if they're more feasible than you may have thought. Even if they're not, they may spark a new idea that's much better than the first.
Tip #6: Start With a Specific Genre
Sometimes when you're writing, it's helpful to have a "north star" to guide you as you form original ideas. One of these can be a specific genre. If you decide on a genre first, it's sometimes much easier to begin thinking of stories that could happen within that genre.
It can be difficult to just think of "a 5-minute film" out of the blue. It can be much easier to think of "a 5-minute horror film" or "a 5-minute sci-fi film."
The best part about this technique is that each genre has certain tropes you can then use to help build out your plot. In a horror film, often the good guys win over the evil that’s trying to eliminate them. Will your plot do the same, or will you try to surprise audiences with an unexpected ending?
Whatever genre you choose, try listing out its typical plot attributes and use that as your guide to help direct your writing.
Tip #7: Write the Ending First
Similar to starting with a specific genre, writing the ending of your film first can also help guide your writing. If you know where you want a story to end up, you can essentially write "backward" and think of a chain of events that could lead to that ending.
This is a great technique to use if you want your film to make a certain statement or point. You start with the climactic or resolving event and then decide what kind of choices could have been made to lead to that point.
Many oscar-winning films have been written using this technique, and some films like The Prestige and Memento even start the movie at the “end” of the story and walk the viewers backwards in time instead of forwards to discover what events led the characters to the place they ended up.
Tip #8: Go For a Walk and Observe the World Around You
This method is helpful for two reasons. First, when you're struggling with writer's block, getting out of your home, office, or apartment can help you ease anxiety and frustration and help boost your mood. Second, going for a walk with the purpose of just observing everything around you can do wonders for sparking ideas.
You can do it in silence, listening carefully to the sounds around you, or maybe put on a playlist that strikes the same mood as the film you're trying to create and observe how that mood interacts with what you see around you. Look at the artwork on advertisements, observe the color of the light on the pavement, and pay attention to how what you hear affects what you see. Also, make sure to bring a notepad of some kind to write down any sparks of ideas that come to mind so you don't forget them later.
Tip #9: Read the News
Similar to how historical events can be great outlines for new stories, current real-life events can do the same. Take a look at what's happening in the world now and think of ways you could incorporate elements of that into a short story.
You could write a story that puts a new perspective on a significant event. You could use current events to observe how people react to things like conflict. And before you think the news is all doom and gloom, there are heroes in nearly every story to be found. You can use these as the foundation for shaping protagonists and other positive characters in your stories.
Tip #10: Take a Boring Event and Give it an Unexpected Twist
If you really pay attention, you'll see this technique used over and over again, not only in short films but in feature films as well. The best part about these kinds of stories is how relatable they are.
Everyone experiences boring tasks or events in their life far more often than exciting ones. So what could be more interesting than thinking about the possibility of one of these seriously boring events turning into something completely unexpected?
This is a great opportunity to really expand your imagination and embrace the absurd or unusual. Maybe a grocer stocking cans at a grocery store day in and day out suddenly puts the wrong can on the wrong shelf and, before they know it, end up discovering a hidden room with a secret purpose. Maybe on a boring commute one day, an office worker turns left instead of right and completely changes their life.
The possibilities are really endless, the secret is to never limit your idea of what a good plot “should” be and instead embrace the fact that sometimes the most ordinary events can lead to extraordinary outcomes with the right imagination.
Tip #11: Play "Short Film MadLibs"
This one is like freewriting with a twist. You can either do this with a group of friends or by using an online word randomizer like this one to generate a logline for your film. Come up with a simple premise, then remove nouns, verbs, and adjectives from the sentence.
Have your friends or a random word generator fill in the blanks with new words. While the results may end up being ridiculous, they may actually spark some new ideas that you can run with.
You can also try creating different categories for different story elements such as “protagonist,” “antagonist,” “theme,” and “genre” and have everyone shout out the first words that pop into their head for each category in a speed round, then rearrange the different items until something clicks.
Fast and furious exercises like this where anything goes can be a great solution for breaking through writer’s block.
Tip #12: Read Books
Again, the best way to come up with ideas is to start by devouring the ideas of others. Head to your local library or dust off the books on the shelf that you've been meaning to get to and start consuming more new stories and ideas.
You may find yourself wanting to expand on a certain type of character or flesh out the ideas in a specific chapter. You also just may discover new genres or ways of telling stories that you've not encountered before.
Drawing from the work of other creatives is always a great way to both learn and get inspired. If you make reading a daily habit, whether it’s fiction novels or even random articles on the internet, you’ll likely begin to unlock some more of your own creativity without even realizing it.
Just write it
Short films are a challenge, but the kind of challenge that can help you grow as a screenwriter or filmmaker. And unfortunately, where most people fail when making them is right at the start. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or frustrated as you try to write something that fits in such a small box, and that’s where most people give up. But, if you take one piece of advice from this article, it should be this: Just write it. Whatever the story is that’s nagging at the back of your head, just write it down. Get it on paper and worry about editing later. The edit is easy, it’s the creation that’s the hard part. Hopefully, some of these tips will help get the creative juices flowing and lead you to that "aha!" moment that all creatives desperately hope for, and that will put you on the road to production.
Now, this challenge is magnified if you're trying to collaborate on a short film with a remote-working team. Remote work puts an extra strain on creative teams that are often working on tight deadlines and need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively. If you're looking to stay connected with your creative team from pre-production all the way through the final export, check out Evercast.
Evercast allows you to video chat and exchanging notes with your team in real-time while also streaming your creative workstations with ultra-low latency HD streaming, all under one platform. It works with any popular filmmaking software and will allow your team to work together seamlessly through every step of the creative process.
Distance shouldn't limit your creativity, and Evercast can help you maintain the magic of collaboration no matter where in the world your co-collaborators may be.