Find out what matters most in a short script with Erik Bork
I recently judged five short scripts for the Willamette Writers Conference’s FiLMLaB contest. It took me back to my own challenges in writing a compelling short script years ago in film school. And I was reminded of the specific elements that some say tend to make a short film “pop”.
Often the most memorable short scripts have a fresh twist at the end that wraps things up in surprising but satisfying way. Sometimes they work by compressing an impressive amount of entertainment value and spectacle (or intense emotional realism) into a tiny package. Or they might have a quirky original idea at their heart, which makes them intriguing even on a conceptual level.
But the most important attribute, to me, is the same thing that I look for in any piece of writing – or finished film or television episode. I think it’s what audiences ask, too. And it’s what the professionals who make decisions about what will reach an audience are largely concerned about in a short script. It all comes down to one question:
Did I care?
As a writer, you want the audience to care about the situation at the heart of your script – and you want them to care about what’s happening in your story enough to want to keep watching, keep reading, and be invested in some sort of outcome.
While a short script can make up for a lack of strong emotional core with off-the-charts entertainment value, usually both are necessary for a piece of writing to really succeed. The reader has to both care about the situation at the heart of the story – and the character(s) who are going through whatever it is – and they also have to enjoy the process of watching them grapple with it.
How do we deliver that?
We give a character a relatable problem, with huge personal stakes. The kind of problem and stakes vary by genre, but each has its own context within which the things to be gained or lost should seem very high. It might be as extreme as “life and death”. Or as “trivial” as some vain ego pursuit by a comedic character, who thinks their happiness depends on resolving whatever they’re focused upon. We might laugh at this, but to them, it matters deeply – and they are obsessed with it. For a time, we can’t help but get obsessed, too. We feel why it’s important to them, and we experience life AS them for the length of the script.
It’s the actions they take in the face of the problem that is the second part of the equation – that’s where the entertainment value comes, and the energy that drives the story forward. I think good movie concepts and good loglines tend to focus on those three elements: (1) the relatable character; (2) the problem that has huge stakes for them, which will be very difficult to solve; and (3) the entertaining-to-watch process by which they try to solve it (and largely fail, leading to complications, which build to a crisis and climax). It may be hell for them, and on some level, hell for the audience who becomes them – but it’s also escapist fun to watch how things unfold. The writer leads the audience to experience desirable emotions of some sort – be they amusement, inspiration, fascination, horror, etc.
It’s hard to pull this off in a short script, where there’s not much time to get readers invested in a character, and not much space for them to grapple with their problem, and try to solve it. It’s tough to grab people immediately with a situation that is both compelling and entertaining to watch, which ideally also has some sort of conceptual hook which makes it memorable.
If you can do that in six to eight minutes, you’ve really done something.