What makes a good story for a short film?
The temptation when you write a short film, and have less time to develop complex characters, is to write your characters in short-hand. If their behavior is simplistic and predictable, your story will be, too. Characters, particularly your hero’s, is the force that drives your story. Do not shortchange your characters! Give them the full range of human characteristics:
• Physical: the character’s height, weight, gender, age, clothes they wear can all influence how your story develops.
• Behavioral: there can be unexpected contrast between expected behavior and actual behavior (for instance, a psychiatrist who is obsessively re-arranging the pens on his desk). This disconnect between what is expected and the actual behavior of he character is immediately intriguing –and often humorous.
• A strong need: Character is ACTION. An action is what the character DOES in order to get what he WANTS. Energize your story by making the hero’s need extreme. What the character wants, he wants passionately. He wants it more than anything in the world. The need of the character must be immediate and urgent, especially in a short film.
The element of conflict.
Conflict is the result of what a character “want” (his goal), and the obstacles he must face to get what he wants. Those obstacles can be another character, nature, society, community. Those are called external obstacles. Sometimes, the obstacles are purely internal –an addiction, psychological issues resulting from a trauma, for instance. Watching the hero struggle against those obstacles is what makes a story interesting. Your job is to make the life of you character difficult! The character says: “I want this!” Say “NO!” to your character!
In the famous short film The Lunch Date, the worst possible obstacle for this wealthy, bigoted, hungry woman takes the shape of a homeless man eating her lunch. The more you intensify the pressure on your hero, the more fun it will be for the audience to watch your movie.
Structuring your story
A story, any story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a feature film, each part has a specific function: you have about 30mns of Exposition (the beginning) to introduce the characters and their world. The middle, called Confrontation, is about 60mns long. The hero goes on his quest to get or achieve something, encounters a number of obstacles that become harder to surmount as the movie progresses. In the third act (also called Resolution) hero must come faceto-face with the antagonist for the final showdown (or Climax). Then the world returns to a new order, and we get a glimpse of the future for the hero in this new world (the resolution). This can take 10-30 minutes. A short film follows the same basic structure in which to organize all the elements of your story, and each “act” must accomplish the same function as in a feature. Yet, you do not have only minutes to do the same job.
• The first and most important rule-of-thumb: KEEP IT SIMPLE!
• Start your story as late as possible: Start your story at the moment something is about to happen to the hero. In other words, choose the last possible moment to enter the story and still have it make sense.
• Create your hero and another main character. Everybody else is an extra.
• Use polarities to create your protagonist (hero) and your antagonist: think of personalities that are polar opposites in terms of values, age, tastes, social position, sexual inclinations, abilities, behavior, etc. This is a simple way to create conflict as you pit one character against his opposite, and let the situation play out between them.
• Use Characterization: This means that you externalize the temperament, profession, social status, attitudes, thoughts and feelings of your characters through character behavior. In other words, you make their Backstory and internal life visible –visual- on screen. In The Lunch Date, the lady wears a fur coat, brushes past begging homeless people, speaks imperiously to the short order cook, polishes her fork before using it. All these elements are telling clues to the lady’s personality. Note that characterization is not caricature: although certain attributes allow the audience to identify the lady’s “type”
immediately, the details of her behavior reveal her unique personality.
• Give your hero one Goal: Keep the character’s goal clear and simple. What the hero wants (or needs) to accomplish must be conveyed quickly.
• Throw one major obstacle in the hero’s way: The hero faces one major external obstacle, and/or one internal one. In The Lunch Date, the lady must confront the homeless man (external obstacle), and conquer her own obsessive cleanliness (internal obstacle) to get what she wants (the salad). What makes the scene compelling and funny is the attention paid to the details of both characters’ behavior and on the development of an improbable relationship.
• Surprise us: The resolution: there is often a twist at the end of a short film, something that adds interest, or humor to a conventional ending. Its purpose is to make the audience think, or to make them laugh (or both). In The Lunch Date, the woman realizes that her salad –the one she really bought- is left untouched in the next booth. This makes her –and us- think about prejudice: we never doubted that the homeless man had stolen the lady’s salad when, in fact, he was generously sharing his meal with her. Beware the twist that solves the hero’s problem! If the lady had noticed the other salad (her own) sooner, the conflict would have come to an end without her having any active role in it. The lady would not have struggled to overcome her social and personal aversions. The story would be flat and uninteresting. The Lunch Date could have turned into another boring morality tale instead of winning an Academy Award!
• Choose a few locations and choose them well. Remember for MMM filmmakers will only have twelve hours to shoot, therefore, when you write your scenes, keep the following parameters in mind for your locations:
o Think of access and control: remote locations requiring driving for miles, or busy locations with a lot of traffic and noise will create insurmountable challenges for the teams.
o Choose locations that are interesting yet practical: Dorm rooms tend to all look the same, but sets requiring extensive design will use up a lot of precious time to dress. You know campus and the immediate environs. Use your imagination!
Follow is the best example of a film short that I can think of. It is a Japanese anime short called Kigeki Comedy OVA You are welcomed to watch it.
During Ireland's War of Independence, a five year old girl set out to save her village from the English army, by trying to find the rumored skilled swordsman living in a nearby castle, who only takes books of a certain genre as payment, only known as the Black Swordsman. Watch the video:
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