How do I Start Writing a Short Film? | Tackling those Tricky First Words

How do I Start Writing a Short Film?

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“How do I start writing a short film?” Simple! You think up an idea, punch out a coupla drafts, get some friends to read it out loud, and- “No no no, how do I start? I’ve currently got 0 words and I assume I’ll need some to get me going. What do I actually do?” Today, we’re going to talk about how to actually begin writing your short film: the tactics you’ll need to turn a good idea into the start of something truly special.

To start writing a short film, you’ll need to have a solid idea in mind, and the resources/equipment needed to see the project to fruition. Choose your software and writing space, set aside time and have a concrete goal in mind for the script once it is completed. When it comes to actually starting to write your short film, look for the simplest and most direct way of beginning the narrative. After that, take it shot by shot. 

Before we dive in, let’s straighten something out: today’s focus is not how to write, per se, but how to begin the process. We have countless other articles covering the process of writing to completion, which we’ll link out at the bottom of this article. For now, let’s put pencils to pages and fingers to keys…

What You’ll Need to Write a Short Film

Let’s start out by covering what will you need lined up before you start writing. There’s not a lot you’ll need to do—in fact, a lot of would-be writers spend more time preparing to write than actually writing. But a little preparation can ease you nicely into that creative mindset.

Equipment

Laptop or desktop computer goes without saying, so let’s cut straight to the software program you’ll need. A scriptwriting program like industry standard Final Draft is ideal, although free-to-use programs like Celtx or WriterDuet are equally suitable.

The advantage to a dedicated program is its built-in formatting. You won’t need to measure your page or check your margins: everything will be pre-set and perfect. This is important for when you show your work to others in the industry, because if your screenplay isn’t in the proper format, nobody will take you seriously. Great writing or not.

If writing on a computer is less conducive to creativity for you, that’s A-Okay. You’re welcome to write your ideas out longhand, or even with a typewriter if you’re feeling like a fast-talking 1940’s reporter. Just know that you will still need to type everything up before sending it out.

Space

Finding a good space for writing can make all the difference in your personal process. Aim for a space with plenty of room and light, free of distractions and too much foot traffic. This could be a public space, like a café, or a private space like your dining table at home.

Our advice on choosing a writing space is for it to be somewhere you can arrive at for the sole purpose of work. Try not to make it the same area in your house where you unwind, or the same café you like to hang out at with friends. Find a clear demarcation between work/leisure as a writer, and you will train yourself to write simply by being in that designated space.

Time

Make time to write. Set it out in your calendar and spend that time on the business of creating. Sometimes you’ll sit there and be lucky to clock a word an hour. But the time spent at the work is as important as what you produce. Your writing will require your personal respect and conviction: the best way to establish this is to make the time needed to do the task.

Start with an hour every second day, or at least four writing sessions a week. You can bump this up if you like, and change the times to better suit your schedule/preference. (Personal example: my last commissioned play was written over the course of three months, every weekday, from 7am – 9am. After that, I had the whole day ahead of me to work, rest, fold washing and lament the choices made by my characters.)

Goals

Finally, you’re going to find it a lot easier to start writing when you have an end point in mind. Think about what your script is for: are you working towards a production? Is there a competition you’re submitting for? Do you have a particular actor in mind with whom you’d like to work?

Even if there is no concrete goal, set yourself a deadline to work to. You can always move it if you think it’s becoming unreasonable, but a date on your calendar that dictates the end of the process is sure to light a fire under yourself when you’ve yet to start!

Ways To Start Writing

Given that our focus today is starting the actual writing process, we’re going to assume that you’ve already got an idea in mind, and given some thought to the plotting of this idea into a narrative an audience can follow. A good idea might feel like an asset in starting to write a short film, but it can also paralyse you: you don’t want to ‘get it wrong’ and do injustice to the brilliance of your first artistic impulse.

Remember that an idea is useless until it’s written out—and written well.

Location, Location, Location

What’s the first thing the audience will see? Usually, it’s the location where the action takes place. Before any of the story unfolds, take a moment to describe it. Make it feel real, ‘lived-in’, like it’s existed for years before the reader of your script picked up these pages and learned about it. Here’s an example:

INT. BUD’S DINER – NIGHT
Bud’s Diner is empty, save for a lone COOK behind the long, red counter. With his back to the room, he scrubs the filthy fry top, swaying his hips to music from a muffled jukebox.

Applying a little script analysis to this description gives us so much to work with: the few details we have suggest a lot about the state of the diner, its popularity, even a hint of a personality for an unnamed character. If you’re struggling to start writing your short film, focus on the world of the story first.

Start Where It Gets Good

A man wakes up, has a shower, brews some coffee, commutes to work, sells insurance over the phone. After work he has a late lunch, hits the gym, calls his mother and then goes to his favourite bar. In the corner booth of the bar, a strange figure sits watching him. The figure calls him over and hands him something: a picture of the rocking horse he owned as a child…

Notice how that story picked up towards the end there? It was three-quarters diary, blah blah blah … and then suddenly a mysterious figure! A relic from the past! Mystery! Adventure!

How late can you start telling the story in your script before it stops making sense? If it takes two pages for the thing to get interesting, consider cutting the first two pages—especially in a short film, where every second has to be justified. Start where it right where gets good. And you’ll feel the same excitement your audience will.

Focus on the Action

Do you feel the burden of your film’s overarching themes and ideas? The need to truthfully represent, whilst keeping your audience engaged? Are you experiencing the pressure of having to write “The Definitive Guide to [TOPIC]?”

Focus on the action. What’s the first thing that happens? “Sandra wants to be the world’s greatest stand-up comedian.” That might be the plot, that might even be your character’s objective, but it’s not the action. What’s the first thing the audience sees? “A comedy club.” More specific. “Sandra at the mic.” Great! Now answer the most important question in writing: “What happens next?”

INT. COMEDY CLUB – NIGHT
Sandra stands at the mic. She tries to open her mouth but nothing comes out. In the dark, she can see the abstract shapes of audiences shifting uncomfortably. Elsewhere, the sound of a smoker’s cough. She tries to speak again, but only a squeak comes out. She grips the mic as her vision blurs…

What happens next? What happens next? And after that, what happens next? Note the cause-and-effect of the action above. Take your script action by action, and give each moment a sense of importance as it sparks the next.

‘Watch’ your Movie

This technique comes from the great writer/director Robert Rodriguez, spoken in one of his series of ‘Ten Minute Film Schools’. If you’re stuck writing your script, stare at a blank wall in your house and ‘watch’ your movie. Let your imagination go and picture what it looks like when the lights go down and the titles flash up. What’s the first shot? How does the action unfold? What are the characters saying?

Script writing forces us to boil down our imaginations into readable chunks so that a director can bring it to life and a producer can pay for it. Sometimes, if you let yourself get caught up in the pressure of writing it all down, you can lose sight of the inspiration and ideas that spurred you into action in the first place. Watch your movie. Enjoy it. And then write it down!

Write Badly

If all else fails, start your script as badly as you can. Seriously: make an effort. Write your dialogue over the top, have too much detailed description and characters straight out of The Room. Push the melodrama, raise the stakes! And if the story is set in a retirement home, you better open your movie on the space battle happening above the Martian colony.

Why? (Entirely fair question.) Because bad writing is better than no writing. And once you’ve written the worst version of your script’s opening, you can focus on drafting it into what it should be. Start by cutting unnecessary things: descriptions, double-ups in dialogue, the space battle happening above the Martian colony. It won’t be long before you start strengthening things, adding better lines or more succinct versions. Before you know it, you’ll have cut through the crap to discover what your story should actually look like.

Conclusion

The effort it takes to start writing is immense. That’s because it’s the hardest part of the process: it’s what starts to turn that idea you’ve had into something others can experience and enjoy. So if you find yourself at the start of your writing journey, know that it gets easier the minute words are on the page. And you’re ten times the writer somebody else is who hasn’t written a thing.

So do whatever it takes to write. Try each of the tactics above, try a combination, ask peers and mentors for their advice. Sure, it’s tough. But there are few things as artistically rewarding as coming up with a little world of your own and telling a story there. And it’s especially true for actors, when you spend so much of your time caught up in the worlds of others.

Good luck!

Additional Resources

Before we sign off, here are some additional resources you might find helpful in your writing journey:

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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