Tips for a Filmmaker of Short Films

I recently judged another film festival and found that the number one issue creating a great chasm between a great film and a lousy one was the story structure or lack of it. While experience and technical expertise plays a role in making a film great, most filmmakers could have jumped ahead of many competitors just by improving their story structure.

Story structure for a short film is as simple as having a beginning, middle and an end. Some filmmakers expand the formula by adding on an epilogue. However, this simple three act structure is the one thing that drives the story forward and creates a desire in the hearts of viewers to see the story to completion. Without it, the audience asks why they wasted their time.

The festival I judged was a 36-hour competition, which forces filmmakers to be extremely creative in their story ideas and how they pull off the exercise. Most filmmakers attempting such competitions never meet the deadline. The next largest group of entrants turns in films that aren’t worth the entry fee. But, for those who come away with a good story, they find the experience a jolt to their career.

For those who don’t place, here are a few simple tips for your story structure:

1. Create a likeable character. A short film doesn’t have the ability to develop a unique or paradoxical character, so simplify things by making him or her likeable. In the first scene, show the character doing something that warms the heart of the audience.

2. Set-up your story in the first scene. The opening of a short sets the tone, flavor and pace for the entire film. It is important that you make a comedy’s opening funny, or a dramas opening tense, or an adventure film’s opening exciting.

3. Give your character a challenge to overcome. It is important that your character has a flaw they have to learn how to overcome during the middle of the show. This prepares them for the big climax where they cause the audience to cheer for their victory.

4. Create a huge obstacle. Whether the main character has to overcome nature, an obstacle, or antagonist, it needs to be bigger than life. This will make the character’s win even more powerful for the audience.

5. Give the audience time to reflect. Once the main character succeeds, the audience needs time to emotionally come down from the excitement and realize what happened. Allow the final scene to play a little longer or add in an epilogue.

These simple steps give direction to a short film that most lack. It will cause the viewer to desire a second or third viewing. Without it, the audience will walk away disappointed.

For those filmmakers in a rush due to deadlines, they can simply build a short story around the following questions:

1. What fun or cool thing can my main character do?

2. How can this play out visually and set the tone for my film?

3. What is his or her flaw that needs to be overcome?

4. What things would block that growth?

5. What might happen that allows the main character to use his new found strengths to overcome what he would normally have failed at?

6. What is the best way for my main character to celebrate the victory?

The answer to each question creates an outline that will match up with the story structure explained above. By simply following this process, the filmmaker can get into the top 20% of competing films. And, with a flair for artistic expression and a clear understanding of technology, the filmmaker can get himself into the winners circle.

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