How to Write a Short Film | Advice for Actors and Writers

How to Write a Short Film

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

The short film is the best and most common first step for actors, directors and filmmakers looking to hone their craft and build their resume. It also presents actors with the opportunity to create a career-defining role. Sick of always being cast as a nice guy? Why not write a kickass short where you’re the most villainous villain that has ever villain-ed! If it’s well written, well made and goes on to find success at some international festivals, the short film presents actors, directors and filmmakers with a wonderful opportunity to kick-start their careers. 

Updated 15th Feb, 2022.

As a general rule, your short film idea should be small, manageable and personal. You should consider the relationship between your characters, the narrative arc and the stakes of your story. It is also important to find a scriptwriting program to simplify your writing experience. 

You can have the best camera gear in the world, amazing special effects and even A-List actors but if the script is bad, the film is going to be bad. It really does come down to the writing. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have Aaron Sorkin-level dialogue and Paul Thomas Anderson character development, although that would be great. What it means is: you have to have a short story worth telling. It has to be compelling, it has to be relatable (and in an ideal world, it’d be funny.) 

So with all of that in mind, let’s look at some of the foundational aspects of the short film and chuck around a few ideas that you could put into action to write one of your own!

What is a Short Film?

A short film is a movie between 30 seconds and 30 minutes. There are thousands of short film festivals around the world that will ask for entries at specific lengths. Tropfest, one of the biggest short film festivals in Australia, wants films no longer than 7 minutes. Generally, most shorts are between 5 and 15 minutes. 

Short films can be a standalone story, or a proof of concept for something bigger—either a feature film or a television series. The production company can look to make a short film in order to prove to funding bodies or distributors that they have the chops to make this idea happen on a bigger scale. A great example of this is Cargo: originally conceived an as Australian short film, Cargo was remade as a feature film for Netflix in 2018, starring Martin Freeman of The Hobbit and The Office fame. 

It remains the perfect example of a simple idea—well executed—that garnered international acclaim and attention and set its creative team up for life. However, bear in mind that they kept their idea simple. Cargo has minimal dialogue, great visual storytelling and it respects its audience to understand the significance of key moments. It uses established relationships (mother, father, child) and the entire zeitgeist of the zombie apocalypse as a bedrock to establish the stakes of the film. It perfectly showcases the filmmakers’ ability to do this on a larger scale, something they achieved with great success! Yolanda Ramke wrote, co-directed and acted in the short and now has her own 8-part project in development. Something to consider for sure. 

How to Start Writing a Short Film

Given StageMilk is primarily for actors, I am going to talk about this next part from an actor’s perspective. You want a short film idea to be small, manageable and—most importantly—personal. Deeply, deeply personal. Either a story that you have lived, or a story that you could see yourself living, that speaks to who you are and how you see the world. An old writing adage that rings true is ‘write what you know’. If you haven’t been to the Vietnam War, maybe leave writing about the terrors of it to someone who has. This should remain true for your first movie at the very least: you can move into high-concept dramas down the road, but stick with something real and relatable when first starting out.

The above point is especially true when you’re planning to write a vehicle for yourself. This is not to say that you shouldn’t branch out or break typecasting, but know what you’re capable of and try to speak from some position of knowledge or authority. Doing so will give your story a sense of weight and importance; the audience, in turn, tends to listen to you more when you seem to know what you’re talking about.

Think about relationships. Family, friends and partners. Think of a story of a moment in your life where everything changed: look to start there and extrapolate out. Remember, it’s all about the narrative arc, building the stakes of a set of given circumstances and if you are looking to make a short film to use as a vehicle for your acting work, making something that means a lot to you is only going to help you in performance. Start – with you. Give the world something real, something authentic, something powerful, something funny and let yourself shine in it. 

If that doesn’t float your boat, we actually have a whole article on short film ideas here. And, hey, never forget that the idea stage is one of the hardest parts of the entire creative process. It’s not meant to come easy, but it can get easier with time and effort spent.

How to Write a Film Script

It can be a little overwhelming to start writing a screenplay; however, remind yourself that it is a skill and skills can always be improved. I will say, however, that a screenwriting program like Final Draft, Celtx or WriterDuet is the place to start. These programs will help you get used to industry standard formatting, which is vital if you want to be taken seriously by collaborators, producers and money people. There’s no wiggle room on this. Anything less is simply unprofessional.

Next, consider doing some research. There are countless books, Youtube videos and Masterclass tutorials for you to check out on this front. You should also consider doing a writing course—even a short course—at your local film school. (Plenty of prestigious schools like Harvard and Oxford have free/cheap online courses you can look into as well.) I would also recommend reading as many screenplays as you can. Find the scripts for your favourite movies and analyse the writing. Why do you love them? Can you see that reflected on the page?

After all the research and prep, it’s time to start typing. It’s going to take time. Even something as short as 7-10 pages could take months of your life. But just like anything else, you will only get out what you put in! Find someone in your field to read your work and offer you valuable criticism: this can be a trusted colleague or a professional assessor. Script assessors like Script Central are available; they aren’t cheap but you can literally pay them to read your script and give you feedback. If you’re serious about making a good film, this is a solid idea.

Once you have a first draft, get some more feedback and write it again! Do at least three drafts before you show it to anybody you’d actually like to make the thing with: anything before that won’t be ready. Keep working that script until you are confident it cannot be any better: you’ll save more time, money and heartache on the page than off. Got all that? Now we’re ready to start producing.

How to Produce A Short Film

Once you’re happy with your script, it’s time to move from being a writer/actor to a writer/actor/producer. Producing, as I talk about in depth here, is all about bringing the right people together. The best thing you can do for your short film is to secure an experienced producer. Making a short film is no mean feat, there are a lot of moving parts and, frankly, it is unlikely to be cheap. So getting an experienced producer on board is going to be extremely valuable. Producers are here to bring people together, they can help you find the right director, get the right locations, find the right cast and enter the film into the right festivals. If you don’t know where to look, start on Facebook. Put an ad up, with a bit of information about your film and see if you get any bites back. 

That being said, you’re more likely to act as your own producer on your first short film. Waiting around for a producer (experienced or green) might stall your filmmaking career indefinitely! The best advice I can give (other than to hit that link in the above para) is to spend plenty of time organising yourself and gathering good people. Ideally, you want to be the least experienced, talented person on set. Plan your shoot days to a tee, ensure that everybody has the resources required for them to do their jobs (including time, the most valuable shooting resource of all). Oh, and if you can’t afford to pay your crew? Feed them like kings. Cater meals and snacks like you’re in the last days of Rome.

 How To Direct A Short Film

This topic is an article unto itself. Hell, it’s already a few articles here on Stagemilk: both on film directing and the art of directing in general. But much like screenwriting, the best way to learn how to direct is to wade in and get experience by doing—while constantly checking in to see what did and didn’t work about your process.

Provided your producer has found some excellent crew, directing is about trusting your team and letting go. People think that just because the director is in charge of the artistic direction and story of the film, they need to micromanage every aspect of the film set. But directing is about knowing your DOP will craft a beautiful shot, that hair and make-up deserve a few seconds as much as the gaffers and grips, that design and costume and props have thought about every object that passes in front of the camera.

Most of all, be sure to support your actors. It might sound funny to hear it, but it’s hella easy to forget about them with all the other questions you might be asked and things you’re supposed to care about. Let them know their performances are your priority, and that you’re there to make them look good and feel confident. No matter how efficient a set or pretty the lighting state: if the performances feel lacking, the rest will look cheap.

N.B. Notice how writing, producing and directing get their own sections in this article? There’s wisdom to separating these roles—even if you wear all three hats (and add ‘actor’ to the list for good measure). Don’t solve a writing problem by directing, a producing problem by writing and so-on, so-forth… Try to keep the jobs separate.

What to do After Making My Short Film

Okay, you’ve made the short. Congratulations! Now it’s time to enter it into film festivals. The best place to start to figure this out is Film Freeway. FilmFreeway is a searchable database of all the film festivals in the world. You can find the right ones that suit your movie and enter them in! Be aware that all the entries will cost money and each have their own terms and conditions. Just like any other contract, make sure that you read and understand the terms and conditions of entry, otherwise you can find yourself in hot water!

Film festivals are a fantastic way to network and get known in the industry as a creative person. People are always asking me about increasing their social media following. What is far more useful is a bunch of industry experts seeing your work on the screen at a professional setting and saying: “Damn they’re good—and they wrote it?!” Getting out there and doing the work is so much more powerful and impressive than posting about it. 

Once you have been through this whole process, you are ready to do it all over again! This time, for something bigger, more ambitious and hopefully more successful!!

Conclusion

The short film is a great vehicle to give yourself the kind of role you’ve always wanted, or to prove to executives that you have the ability to make what you want to make. Hell, it’s also a great way to have fun with your friends and make something you love. Whatever it might be for you, getting better as a writer and a creative is only going to serve you in all of the other aspects of your creative life. Enjoy, and I can’t wait to see all the awesome movies you make in the future!

About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

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