When you first start writing something, it can be hard to know what it is.
You might have a line of dialogue in mind, or a character, the beginning of a scene, even just an emotional atmosphere. You might write a few more lines, but still not know… is it a primetime sitcom? An edgy cable sitcom? An indie movie? A webisode? It’s only as you keep on writing (and keep on writing, and keep on…) that you realize what shape your story is… e.g., is it novel-shaped, movie-shaped, short-story shaped, just a single scene… or maybe, is it short movie-shaped?
(This is why the best way to write something is to write it… if you don’t start putting words next to other words, you’ll never get to the words after that… eh, that sounded better before we wrote it — but you get the idea! You won’t write if you don’t write. Boom!)
What counts as short-movie shaped, you ask? (Thanks for asking!) Well, we’ll tell ya.
Firstly, you don’t really have room for the traditional three act structure of movie storytelling. If you’re on the (ideal) shorter end of the spectrum, up to 10-15 mins, you don’t have a lot of runway to set up a story, develop it, and pay it off. Everything in a short movie has to be brutally efficient: each line, each beat, each shot has to work hard to propel your short to its (hopefully awesome) ending.
So a short movie will usually drop you into a situation, which means your writing has to be extra sharp, and your characters have to show themselves quickly and organically. If you want to think of your short movie in acts, each act might only be around 1-3 minutes.
The key to short movies is the reveal, also known as the punchline, or the twist, or the pay-off. A short movie is basically one set up, and one payoff. You can structure that any way you want. As we saw in our last post, Eric Kripke balanced his set-up and pay-off pretty evenly, Colin Trevorrow’s set-up was in the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the short was all pay-off, while Neil LaBute’s short was 99% set-up, with a brilliant pay-off right at the end.
So, as you can tell, the other key characteristic of a short movie is how flexible it can be. That’s the beauty of shorts.
Their lack of formal structure allows you to be truly experimental and bold in your storytelling; the smaller canvas rewards bolder strokes.
Your short movie story could be real-time, or a day in the life, or have massive time-jumps and cover years, or even centuries. What makes it a short movie is that set-up, and pay-off.
You’re usually playing with one idea, or one concept. It could be a war between neighbors that gets resolved in an unexpected way, or someone having a really bad day, or something that’s a set-up and pay-off at the same time — one joke or idea played out to its conclusion, as in Jay and Mark Duplass’s 2003 “$5 short” This Is John, which got into Sundance, and opened a lot of doors for them. It’s the simplest of ideas, executed inventively.
As with all writing, there needs to be tension, conflict, something the lead character is fighting against, or fighting to get. Things need to go wrong in some way. In This Is John, all John wants to do is leave a successful answerphone greeting (remember, it was 2003. Old!). And it’s the one thing he can’t do. It’s the tension between dreams and reality played out to escalating, tragicomic effect.
Your short can be simple, like that, or it can be grandiose, like Neill Blomkamp’s Alive In Joburg (which was later developed into District 9), which obviously has a bigger budget, but it still uses guerrilla tactics to create the impression of scope and scale.
It doesn’t hurt that he had the CGI skills to pull it off. Don’t worry if you don’t. Remember, This Is John was literally just one brother pointing a handheld camera at another brother talking into an answering machine. And it got into Sundance, and it did great there.
As Jay Duplass has said, “the best thing to do is just make your stuff, and make it as best you can at the level you can make it at… and it will speak for itself.”