Drafting the Short Screenplay...
Drafting the Short Screenplay: Writing the Short Film (Shorts as a Special Genre)
It's commonly understood that the difference between a screenplay and a novel is that novels tend to explore the interior landscapes of a character's thoughts and feelings, while screenplays tell stories about what we can see - i.e., a character's actions. But while it's easy to see the difference between a film and a novel, it's a bit harder to see the difference between a short film and a long one.
Of course, one of the more obvious differences is the length: feature film screenplays are, as a rule, 120 pages (or two hours) long. (The rule of thumb is that one page equals one minute of screen time). The short screenplay, on the other hand, can be as short as one minute, or as long as forty. Short films also take many shapes - they can be experimental, animated, documentary, or narrative. The short narrative screenplay is the sort of screenplay that we're concerned with here.
Like its "beefier" cousin, the feature film, a short narrative film tells a story. But beyond this, the similarities fade. First, the feature film has a three-act structure - a structure that goes beyond "beginning, middle, and end." In the feature film, each of the three acts hinges on a plot point. A "plot point" is some event that spins the action into another direction, usually heralding the next act. Feature films also generally have sub-plots or elaborate backstories. In Star Wars, for example, Luke Skywalker has a fascinating backstory that Lucas explores in several films.
In a short film, there's no time to develop an elaborate plot structure. In fact, as we noted earlier, some short film makers fear time constraints and so eschew story entirely. They make films based on situation, not story. Generally, these films are ironic: they show characters in unusual situations that are resolved through some final "twist."
Story is different. Stories evolve when characters want something, are blocked from having it, and resolve the matter in some way. In a story, characters don't simply find themselves in ironic situations. They grow. They change. The structure of the film is based on this growth. However, in the short film, the character's desire has to be made clear very early in the film. The obstacles have to arise almost immediately. The road to resolution has to be well-plotted and well-paced. If you manage all of this, you'll have produced a successful short screenplay.
The process of writing a short screenplay is similar to writing a long screenplay, but presents special challenges. Below is a discussion of how we met those challenges as we drafted our short film, Because of Mama.