Author, Producer Bill Johnson on Short Scripts

(This blog is being reposted courtesy of the author. Originally titled, Revelation, Story, and Plot in a Script for a Film Short, it appeared in a June 2013 FiLMLaB column. It is worth reviewing, along with Bill’s short video discussing short scripts, common errors inexperienced screenwriters make, and the benefits for writers in going through a production process. To learn more about Bill, see his bio at the bottom of the page.)

by Bill Johnson

I teach that a story creates movement and the movement transports an audience. This dynamic holds whether the story is a novel, screenplay, play, short story, or short script.

The language used to talk about stories often conveys movement: story arc, hero’s journey, plot points. Stories that fail to establish they are moving toward some point appear, well, pointless. The longer a story goes without establishing a clear sense of purpose, the more likely readers will feel a story is not going anywhere.

But, in a short film script (under ten pages), there’s an almost exception to this basic rule. A well-written short script can build to a single, powerful revelation that doesn’t depend so much on character arc or journey or plot or meaning, but on quickly building to that final, intriguing twist.

An example of a story with a great twist is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, written by Ambrose Bierce. The short story is set during the Civil War. A young man is to be hung, but the rope breaks and he escapes. Just as he reaches home and his young wife, he hears a snap and we realize he imagined that escape, and his life just ended with his being hung.

Even if you haven’t read this story, you’ve seen this revelation used in movies (Jacob’s Ladder, The Jacket, The Sixth Sense). These kind of stories are also called O’Henry’s, named after an author who wrote short stories with an artful twist.

But I said this is an ‘almost’ exception. Almost because these stories need to be well-written to work (stumbling over awkward, obscure language can detail the quick movement to the twist). The bigger exception is, what happens when stories with twist endings are competing against a story with structure?

I write ten minute plays. Years ago, I wrote a ten minute play called The Baggage Handler, about a couple checking in their baggage for their next lives together. It was a play that asked audiences to put themselves into that situation.

When the play was done as part of a festival in New York, I went back to attend. Since this was just a few years after 911, just about all the other plays had the same twist/revelation, that the characters involved were dealing with the aftermath of 911. My play had a revelation, but also characters with clearly defined goals and a plot. My play won the festival because the other plays with the same revelation divided the votes.

Bringing this back to #FiLMLaB, several scripts were written to build to a single clever revelation. Those stories competed against each other.

If you’re going to write a short script, are you hitting the basics? Does your script have a beginning, middle, and end, start on page one, has a main character who wants something? Minor characters who each have a purpose that impacts what the main character wants and also defines them? A landscape that interacts with the characters?

Being clever is great, but creating a short script with a great twist AND a powerful story, that’s a winning combination.

Author, Bill Johnson

Author, Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson has been the Office Manager for Willamette Writers for 17 years, as well as a writer, screenwriter, and playwright. He has been a FiLMLaB judge as well as producer. To read some of his longer reviews of popular movies, visit his website or check out his highly regarded writing workbook, A Story is a Promise. He also teaches classes on writing and screenwriting. His next class is in the Winter of 2015. Registration details here.  Or, find him on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

Ruth Witteried

As Visual Media Director, Ruth Witteried works with all programs based in the visual arts, including screenwriting and film production. As Executive Director of the FiLMLaB competition and project, she produced the 2012 FiLMLaB short, Alis Volat Propriis, winner of the 2013 OIFF Best Comedic Short; 2013′s Coffee.Table.Book.; 2014's Unwelcome Guests, and in 2015, The Return of Bug Eyed Bill. She acted as Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference from 2011-2013 and occasionally teaches screenwriting at Clark College. She currently is Executive Director of Willamette Writers' FiLMLaB. You can follow her on Twitter @sityourassdown1 or Facebook at FiLMLaB. Contact her. (