What Makes a Good Short Film?

Here are the notes I made at the most recent Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where Nigel R. Smith talked about what makes a good short film:

  • Length: Optimum length ten minutes. This is enough to tell a good story and hold the audience’s attention. It also fits in neatly with film festival time slots.
  • Theme: Theme is crucial. Something that you are concerned about. Something that everyone can relate to. If you look at short films that win prizes, themes involving wars and kids are popular. People like films that feature children in peril!
  • Characters: Very strong central character with a very clear central goal. A clear nemesis. Only use a few characters because there is very little time to get to know them.
  • Location: As with characters, little time for audience to familiarise themselves with locations so only use a few, unless the character is going on a physical journey e.g. a road trip. Try to use a very specific, unusual location unfamiliar to most audiences. An unusual story world can make something ordinary appear extraordinary.
  • Setting: Present day. Historical / futuristic settings are expensive and a lot of work to create.
  • Structure: Standard linear narrative, 3- act structure. Have a strong beginning, get into story and character quickly. Set up active questions so that the audience wants to know what happens in the next scene i.e. dramatically withhold information. Twist in the tale endings are perfect for the short film.
  • Dialogue: Type of dialogue must be appropriate to the film. Naturalistic (this is a dialogue form, it does not mean talking naturally). Make everything that is said count. Don’t over explain things in the dialogue. The audience likes a bit of room to figure out for themselves what is going on.

Nigel  R. Smith runs screenwriting courses at Screen Academy Scotland and has written a short film distribtion guide, You’ve Got It Made, which is available to download at the Scottish Screen website.

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