This book is primarily intended for film and video students or independent video- and filmmakers who are faced with the necessity of writing a short narrative script. For our purposes, we consider a short film to be one of 30 minutes or less, as films longer than that usually need a secondary, or minor, plot-line to sustain audience interest and, in addition, are much less likely to be eligible for festivals or suitable to be shown as “portfolio” work.

Although our main focus is on the short narrative film, we intend to demonstrate the ways in which each short form has borrowed freely from the others. It is important that less-experienced screenwriters realize that, even when the scripting of a narrative, documentary, or experimental film proceeds in an informal way—using improvisation, for example—the film itself still needs a purpose and shape to make a coherent whole. This is true even of stories that may concern themselves primarily with form, or form as context, as is frequently the case with postmodern films or videos.

The Evolution of the Short Film

At the outset of film being created as an art, all films were short. Indeed, until 1913, all films were 15 minutes long or less. Only after the Italian film epics had influenced D. W. Griffith to produce Judith of Bethulia did the longer form come to be the norm.

Although feature film eventually became the predominant form, comedy shorts, from Mack Sennett to the Bowery Boys, were produced until the success of television in the 1950s. Serialized films were also essentially shorts, characterized by an incident or catalytic event, which led to a character responding and other characters resisting that response. The films presented melodramatic protagonists and antagonists: the Battle at Elderbrush Gulch, by D. W. Griffith, and The Tramp, by Charlie Chaplin, illustrate the common characteristics of these short films. An ordinary character, caught up in extraordinary events, succeeds in overcoming those events and his or her antagonists, in an exciting, astonishing fashion. One of the most famous short films ever made was both a response to the conventions of narrative film in the ‘20s and an experiment influenced by ideas being explored in the visual arts (surrealism) and in the particulars of Spanish Catholic theology. That film, Un Chien d’Andalou, was the product of a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. No other short film still succeeds in shocking and confusing audiences as does the Bunuel-Dali collaboration, and no other film has shown such shocking individual images paired with so little concern for overall meaning.

But for our purpose in this book, Un Chien d’Andalou—because it is so challenging to the narrative conventions often associated with film— remains an experiment in form rather than a case study for scripting the successful short film. Nevertheless, the audacity of the film cemented a relationship between film and the visual arts and ideas closely tied to art (for example, surrealism and the growing importance of psychotherapy in the visual arts); this has become a continuing source of short films, from the work of Man Ray and Maya Deren to the more contemporary work of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, and Joyce Wieland.

Other developments in the short film coalesced around the documentary work of John Grierson and his colleagues Basil Wright and Edgar Ansty at the Empire Marketing Board in England, and around the work of Pare Lorentz and Willard Van Dyke in the United States. The films these filmmakers produced were issue-driven, encouraging government intervention in the economy in the United States or promoting the benefits of government policy in the United Kingdom. None of these films revolved around a particular event or used a protagonist or an antagonist; their structures are, for the most part, essay-like rather than narrative. The drama of real-life issues close to a particular political consciousness motivated these filmmakers, and their films were often labeled propaganda.

Yet another offshoot of the short film, this time from the commercial studio of Walt Disney, was the animated short, intended to be shown with feature films in theaters. These 5- to 8-minute films had a protagonist (often a mouse, a rabbit, or a wolf) with a strongly defined character and a particular goal. The story would unfold when the character’s efforts to achieve a goal were thwarted by a situation or antagonist. The character’s struggle to achieve his or her goal made up the story of the film. These films abounded in action and conflict, the dramatic values yielding laughter at rather than sympathy for the main character and his or her struggle. They were very successful, and their pattern of narrative plotting and development of character set the tone and pace for an even shorter film form—the commercial. Whether they last 3 minutes or 30 seconds, commercials often tell a story based on the pattern established in the animated shorts, which used established narrative forms—the tale, the fable, the journey—to convey, and at times to frame, the narrative. By 1960, filmmakers in Europe had begun to use the short film as a means of entry into the production of longer films. In Poland, Roman Polanski directed Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). In England, Lindsay Anderson directed O Dreamland! (1954), and Richard Lester, The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959). In France, Jean-Luc Godard directed All Boys Are Called Patrick (1957), and François Truffaut directed Les Mistons (1958). In this period, Alain Resnais directed his remarkable Night and Fog (1955), about Auschwitz; Federico Fellini directed Toby Dammit (1963), and Norman McLaren directed his classic antiwar short Neighbors (1952). Only McLaren stayed with the short films; all the others moved on to distinguished careers as international filmmakers and continued their work in the long form.

This transition from short film to feature also seems to be the pattern for students in American film departments. Since the 1960s, these schools have produced distinguished alumni who began their work in the short form and then moved to the long: Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Chris Columbus, M. Night Shyamalan, and Martin Brest on the East Coast, and Francis Coppola and George Lucas on the West Coast are among the most successful graduates of the film schools. Lucas’s THX 1138 (1966) and Scorsese’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964) are among the best student films ever made, though their work at the time was no more than apprenticeship for the long film.

While it is true that there are filmmakers in the experimental and documentary area who continue to work in the short form, more and more filmmakers in these areas are moving to the long form as well (Bruce Elder or Su Friedrich in the experimental film genre, and the work of Ross McKelwee and Barbara Kopple in the documentary, for example). The short, at least in North America, is more and more an economic necessity for the student filmmaker and the novice professional, and while there are still short films produced in the educational corporate sectors, they are far fewer than in the past.

In Europe, however, the short film remains a viable form of expression, one supported in large part by cultural ministries. Magazines devoted to short films as well as festivals devoted exclusively to the form assure, at least for the medium term, that it will continue to thrive. Internationally, film schools have provided continuing support for the short film. The international organization of film schools, CILECT, has held a biannual student film festival focused on the European schools, and an annual student festival has been sponsored by the Hochschule in Munich. Another important biannual festival is the Tel Aviv Film Festival. All of these festivals are related to the CILECT organization and focus on the work of students in member schools. The Oberhausen Festival in Germany and the Clement-Ferrand Festival in France are devoted to short films, including fictional, experimental, documentary, and animated films.

Besides CILECT, a growing number of film festivals worldwide have short film categories. Chicago, Toronto, and even Cannes show short films, and all of these festivals have been important launching points for the careers of the filmmakers. But both the CILECT-sponsored festivals and the larger international ones highlight short films as a path to the production of longer films, as an apprenticeship experience rather than an end in itself. Unlike the short story, which continues to be a lively, viable form, the short film is not widely and internationally recognized as something to which artists devote their careers.

Nevertheless, we believe that, just as the short story has experienced a renaissance in the past 15 years, so too it seems that a new and longer-term interest in the short film is developing; recent cable programming initiatives and specialty market developments suggest that it too may experience a renaissance.

One of the more promising developments at present for the short film is the combining of three or more shorts to produce a film that can be marketed as a feature. A recent example of this is writer/director Rebecca Miller’s well received first “feature,” Personal Velocity (2002)—three short films of under 30 minutes each, which are unified by theme, rather than location or use of the same actors. Each main character is a woman on the verge of a major change in her relationship to the man she lives with, and to the world.

In the past, anthologies such as 6 in Paris (Paris vu Par …) (1964), made up of six short films with six different directors such as Godard, Chabrol, and Rouch, were marketed as features. In this case, what unifies the film and makes it a viable whole is the fact that each short is located in, and represents life in, a different district of Paris. Another such successful anthology, shot by directors such as Cavalcanti and Deardon, is the British film, Dead of Night (1945), in which five people are gathered in a country house to tell ghost stories. (In this film, the framing narrative itself becomes a terrifying tale.) In the present climate, and with the public’s growing interest in seeing short films, it would seem that any of these examples might offer a possible direction for independent video and filmmakers, especially those working under the strictures of a low budget.

The Relationship of Long to Short Film

The usual long-form, or feature-length film, has a definite set of qualities beyond its physical length. There are particular expectations of character, complexity of plot, presence of a subplot or secondary story line, and a particular structure (generally called a three-act structure). There are numerous secondary characters, and often particular genre forms are used, such as the gangster film or film noir.

Are the characteristics of the short film variations of those of the long film? In most cases, no. It is true that the two forms rely on visual action for exposition and characterization, as well as on the illusion of reality inherent in the use of film as a visual medium. Beyond these two characteristics, however, the short film proceeds in both a simpler, and a potentially freer, manner.

The simplicity lies in the restricted number of characters, often no more than three or four, and the level of plotting, which is usually a simple story. This does not mean that the main character is necessarily simple in the short film, but it does mean that an economy of style is employed to create that character. There is no time in the short film for the kind of pauses for elaboration of character so often deployed in the long film.

The freedom of short film relative to long lies in the possibilities of using metaphor and other literary devices to tell the story—a luxury not available in the commercially driven, realism-oriented long film. Indeed, one of our major points about the short film is its linkage to literary forms such as the short story, the poem, the photograph, and the one-act play.

Rust Hills, a well-known editor, characterizes the short story as a “story that tells of something that happened to someone. Second, the successful contemporary short story will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form excepting perhaps lyric poetry.”1 He also suggests that the story is dynamic, that the character is moved in the course of experience of the story, and that there are few secondary characters and no subplot. Often the story will unfold around a choice that presents itself to the character, who never returns to his or her former state; closure is attained by virtue of making or avoiding that choice.2 Rust Hills’s observations about the short story could be as readily applied to the short film.

Although many books have been written about screenwriting, with few exceptions they are concerned with writing the long film. Most recent books have focused on structure and have moved away from the Aristotelian concerns of their predecessors. Consequently, the relevance of these books to the writing of the short film posits an analogy between the structure of the short film and that of the long, in essence a three-act structure. This relationship between short and long film, both in proportion and in form, is at best tenuous. The long-form, act-length proportion is 1:2:1 (30 minutes, Act I; 60 minutes, Act II; 30 minutes, Act III). In a short film of 15 to 30 minutes, it is doubtful that this proportion would hold. The catalytic event that would begin the action of the film, which could be viewed as the beginning of Act II, must come much more quickly than a quarter of the way into the film. Indeed, in the short film, if we use the long-form act proportion or three-act structure, we find that both Act I and Act II are very short, because the setting up of the story (Act I) must be fast. Without the characterization and relationships of Act II, the conventional conflicts of the long-form Act II also move quickly, which leaves the largest proportion of the short film for the character to find a resolution—often a problem. In many short films, a one-or two-act structure might be a more productive writing device. The upshot is that much of what has been written about screenwriting in general is not very helpful for the writing of short films.

The Shape of this Book

We have structured this book into four sections, the first dealing with the underlying fundamental characteristics of the short screenplay; the second moving the writer from the fundamentals to strategies for storytelling, visualization, dramatization, character, and dialogue; the third dealing with forming the story; and the last pointing out future directions.

Since the process of writing the short film should be an organic one, we begin with the idea and move the writer through the various phases of the actual writing and rewriting of the script. Where relevant, chapters will include exercises intended to guide the writer in writing the best script possible.

We believe that writing is a mix of talent and technique. We can teach you the technique and provide exercises to elicit creative solutions to writing problems, but in the end, it is your unique voice that will make your film story different from every other film story.


1 Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 1.

2 Ibid., 1–11.

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