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 kick ass short where you’re the most villainous villain that has ever villianed! 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. 

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, that 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 sec and 30 mins. 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 stand alone 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 at 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. 

A perfect example of a simple idea well executed, that garnered international acclaim and attention that has set its creative team up for life. Something to keep in mind, they kept this idea simple, it’s got 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 show in development. Something to consider for sure. 

How to Start Writing a Short Film

So now we know what we’re talking about when it comes to the short film, we can start on what might work for you. Given StageMilk is primarily for actors, I am going to talk about this next part from an actors 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. Another 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. At least for your first movie, we can always move into high concept dramas down the road, but as a starting point start with something real and relatable.

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.

How to Write a Film Script

There are so many books, Youtube videos and Masterclass tutorials for you to check out on this front. Getting some training, reading all you can and taking some in person or online courses is a great idea. I will say however that getting a program like Final Draft, Celtx or WriterDuet is a great place to start. These programs are industry standard and will largely do the complex formatting stuff for you. I would also recommend reading as many screenplays as you can. Get the screenplays for your favourite movies and analyse how they have been written. Also seriously consider doing a writing course, even a short course is a good idea, at your local film school. Heaps of schools like Harvard and Oxford have online courses you can do for free or very cheap that are worth looking into as well.

Writing is not easy folks. This is going to take time. Even something as short as 7-10 pages could  take months of your life. Just like anything else, you will only get out what you put in! Finding someone in your area to read your work and offer you valuable criticism to help you improve is vital. Script assessors like Script Central are available, they are not 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 very good idea.

Once you have a first draft. Get some people to read it and write it again! Do at least 3 more drafts before you look to start getting the people together to make a short film. I will say it again here – you can’t polish a turd. Keep working that script until you are happy that it cannot be any better. Now we’re ready to start producing.

How to Make a Short Film

At this stage, is where you 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 get a producer on board to help you out who has done this before. 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. 

There is a reason why producers are the top of the tree when it comes to responsibility in the film world. They make things happen and having a great producer on your film, who believes in you and believes in the project will assist immensely. If you don’t know where to look, start on Facebook. Put an ad up, with a bit of information about your film, maybe some concept art or images and see if you get any bites back. Searching your town and ‘film and tv’ is a great place to start. If you are more interested in producing it yourself, take a look at my producing article here. 

What to do After Making My Short Film

Okay you have made the short! 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 really find yourself in hot water!

Entering and hopefully winning film festivals is 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 to book more jobs, or approaching casting directors with self tapes and so on. While these things can be useful, what is far more useful is a bunch of industry experts seeing your work on the screen at a professional setting and saying ‘damn he’s good – and he wrote it? Holy moly!’ 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

There you have it, a step by step guide on how to write a successful short film for actors by an actor. The short film is a great vehicle to give yourself the kind of role you always wanted, or to prove to executives that you have the ability to make what you want to make, or hell just 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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