I’m about to get cracking on my submission for a prestigious short screenplay competition. I wondered if you had any advice specific to writing shorts? If you were judging a shorts competition, what would you be looking for?
A short film, like a short story, can’t waste any time. You need to give us your principal characters and establish their motivations immediately. There’s very little stage-setting before you get to the inciting incident and the ensuing complications.
The hero’s fundamental problem/challenge/obstacle needs to occur by the time you get to the 1/3rd mark. So, if your short is meant to be three minutes long, the big event needs to happen on page one. If it’s a 10-minute short, it happens around page three. It’s not that you’re worried about your reader getting bored before then — if you can’t entertain us for three pages, there’s a problem — but rather that if you delay any longer, your story is going to feel lopsided: too much setup for what was accomplished.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t worry much about traditional structural expectations. Funny almost always works better than serious for a short, because there’s not enough time to create the narrative movement you expect in drama. But there are exceptions. The Red Balloon for example. And I loved Walter Salles’ chapter in Paris, je t’aime, which was simply a sad rhyme.1
So think funny, or poignant — but only if French.
I’ve put the script for my 1998 short film God up in the Library.2 It’s 30 scenes in 11 pages. A lot of story happens, quickly. But many successful shorts take the opposite tack: they’re essentially just one joke, fully exploited. Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Jagg Off is that kind of short, as are most of the SNL and Will Ferrell videos you’ve seen.
For the competition you’re entering, however, I’d be careful not to submit anything that felt too much like a comedy sketch. If I were a judge, I’d be looking for a script that doesn’t seem like it could end up on Saturday Night Live. (Or the British equivalent.)