Feature films use the three-act structure originally conceptualized by Shakespeare. It was an obvious structure, since all stories have a beginning, middle and end. The motion picture industry broke it out further due to the size of shooting and editing reels. Films quickly were divided into Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B and Act 3.
This was further broken down into two action sequences per act. Each action sequence was 12-15 minutes in length, which would fit on a 15-minute reel. In order to fit in commercial TV breaks at the appropriate time, MOWs (Movie of the Week) used 8 acts with each one running 8-12 minutes.
Since these action sequences all have a beginning, middle and end, and clearly tell a portion of the over all story, I decided to see if I could pull a sequence from a feature and use it as a standalone short film. The idea was simple, if you could make 8 shorts and later cut them together as a feature, you could release a feature film every few years on a short film budget. But, it didn’t work.
Most story sequences work within a feature because the entire concept was developed in Act 1. The needed backstory that led to the sequence was already in the audience’s mind after the first half hour of the film, allowing the director to take short cuts in the telling of the story.
It’s therefore paramount that all short films are complete stories within themselves, including the following set-up elements:
- Attention getting device to pull audience into story.
- A shared crisis or humorous moment to bond the hero to the audience.
- A subtle moment where the hero does something to protect his heart or an inner pain from the past.
- An element of risk or unfair treatment as the hero pursues his goal.
- A moment that clarifies that the hero is not content with his circumstances.
- An inciting incident that starts the story moving.
- The hero’s call to adventure and his hesitation to respond.
- The revelation that a trap is set or negative circumstances will soon come against the hero.
The bad news is that writing a great beginning for a quality short film may take just as long as writing one for a feature film, because all films, regardless of length, require the same set-up beats to be effective for the audience. Unfortunately, many filmmakers will take shortcuts in writing their short film by using stereotypes so they don’t have to develop their characters.
While characters are more developed in a feature, most sequences do not have self-contained set-up beats and therefore can’t be used as standalone shorts. And, without the proper set-up, the audience will perceive the film differently than intended, making it a flop.