Short scripts are a good way to cut your teeth in the world of scriptwriting and make good practise for writing future features. The principles of writing a short script are much the same as that of writing a feature length script. If anything writing a short can be much more challenging than writing a feature as you have less time to get a clear, concise idea over to your reader or audience in a way that’s entertaining.
However, with the advent of social media getting your film out there has become much easier and short films work well as potential ‘calling cards’. The following article is a guide to writing a short narrative-based screenplay.
The first thing you’re going to need is an idea or premise that you can develop into a story. Your idea may be a specific scene, a snippet of dialogue or a particular place for example. Whatever your idea it is this that has motivated you to write this script and from this idea you will need to develop it (through conflict and drama) into a fully realised story that will entertain and engage your reader and potential audience.
In order to develop your idea into a story you will need structure. Structure is the foundation of any story and usually comes in the form of a beginning, middle and end. If there is a problem with your structure there will be a problem with your story as the two go hand-in-hand and are not mutually exclusive so it is imperative you get your structure right. The following is an example of an idea developed and broken down into these three components:
Estranged couple invent a series of dark games to spice up their non-existent love life only to be thwarted by interruptions and apathy.
Frustrated, the ‘games’ soon become reality as the couple verbally taunt each other with hurtful home-truths which escalate into a physical fight.
Out of the fight some spark of passion is at last ignited and the couple end up on the floor in a passionate embrace.
Using this structure as a foundation to develop the story further we can now move on to the next step.
Any story is about conflict and how that conflict is resolved. Through conflict you create characters who in turn create the story. You introduce conflict by way of obstacles and it is how your characters overcome these obstacles that makes them who they are and the story what it is. Through obstacles and conflict we now expand each component step by step using plot points:
- A woman relaxes in front of a movie only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of an intruder who demands she take her clothes off.
- Exerting her control the woman orders the intruder to leave and threatens to call the police only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of the man overpowering her.
- Turned on by his show of power the woman succumbs to her passion only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of a telephone call thus revealing the game they are playing.
- The woman begins a different game only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of the man’s lack of enthusiasm.
- The woman tries again only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of the man’s flat refusal.
- Appealing for help, the woman asks what he suggests they do only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of the man demeaning her by suggesting she make dinner.
- Retaliating, the woman attempts to humiliate the man by questioning his sexuality only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of him blaming her lack of sex appeal.
- Testing his love, she declares she’s leaving only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of his apathy.
- Seizing his attention by force she physically attacks him only to be thwarted by an obstacle in the form of him physically overpowering her.
- Turned on by his sudden show of action/attention she kisses him who turned on her by her show of affection/love kisses her back.
- Weary of yet another one-of-many, similar-type rituals they have to go through in order to express their feelings she half-jokingly tells him she hates him to which he replies in kind.
Through conflict we are able to plot a rough story from beginning to end and at the same time give ourselves a clearer idea about who these characters are. We are now ready to go into more detail as we move onto the next step.
Screenwriting by its very definition is a very restricted form of writing as you are basically creating a technical document for a film crew and actors to work from. However, the outline stage of screenwriting is where you can get to let it all hang out and let your inner ‘artist’ roam free. There are no rules here. Using your step outline and story structure as your foundation to flesh out your story in more detail you can give your unconscious free reign to do and say what it wants in the form of a short story albeit with little to no dialogue (you want to save the best till last). Here your story is expanded and becomes more detailed. Descriptions of characters, the house they live in, the clothes they wear, who they are, where they’re from, their state of mind, inner feelings – anything goes. Pour it all out. No inhibitions. Let your free flowing, stream-of-consciousness all out within the parameters of your outline until you have nothing left to say and everything that’s in your head is down on paper or on your computer screen. Once your artistic spirit has been exhausted and satisfied you can move on to the next step.
Out of that morass of free-writing you can now at last edit your work down into something resembling a screenplay as you separate your prose into blocks of individual scenes. Each scene heading indicating whether the action takes place inside or outside (INT or EXT), the location
(E.G. LIVING ROOM) and time of day (DAY or NIGHT). Various formatting software are available such as Final Draft or Celtx which will automatically format your screenplay as you go along thus saving you much time in the process. The descriptive text and action should be terse, to the point and written with an idea of what the camera is going to see and how you want the film to be played to the reader/audience.
INT. LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
A beautiful WOMAN relaxes on a sofa completely entranced by an erotic movie.
Behind her a door opens slowly and a MAN silently enters the room.
Unaware, the Woman continues watching the movie as the Man quietly closes the door.
Totally engrossed in the movie, the Woman remains oblivious to the Man standing ominously behind her.
The door handle CLICKS shut.
The Woman suddenly snaps to attention as she springs round to face the intruder.
Once you have written your formatted screenplay from beginning to end, step by step, outlining each character’s inner motivation you are ready for the final and arguably most fun stage.
There is a reason why I save dialogue writing until the very end of the screenwriting process and that is to avoid ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue. ‘On-the-nose’ dialogue is dialogue spoken by the characters to further the story or to express how they are feeling when it is action through conflict that ought to further your story and express how your characters are feeling. It is also a lot easier to come up with convincing dialogue when you know your character’s inner motivation then it is when you don’t. When you are upset do you tell someone you are upset or do you cry quietly to yourself when nobody is looking? When you are angry do you verbally express your state of anger or do you storm out of the room in a fit of expletives? When in love do you tell your lover how much you love them or do you show them your love through action in the bedroom? Dialogue is your character’s ammunition. It enhances the things that they do. Know your characters from the inside first through action and conflict and you will find you won’t even have to come up with clever lines to put in their mouths because they’ll start speaking for themselves.
The rewrite and editing stage of the writing process is probably the most important stage. Having spent so much time on it you might find it hard to view your script with objective eyes. Once you’ve completed a draft leave your script alone and forget about it for a few days or even weeks. This is to ensure that when you return to it you can view it with objective eyes. You want your script to be as tight as possible, moving through the action from beginning to end as economically and smoothly as possible. Cut out any superfluous words in the directions or dialogue that doesn’t need to be there. Less is more. If your characters can say something with one word rather than a paragraph cut it out. Be ruthless in your editing until you feel there is nothing unnecessary left to cut.
Ultimately scriptwriting is a craft that takes years of practise and dozens of scripts to master. I don’t offer this article as the definitive guide to screenwriting but merely as an example of my own personal method.