The unsung hero of short films is pace.
Pace does not mean that everything races along at a million miles per hour. In the instance of film, pace does not mean speed. In the instance of film, pace means the rhythm of the story.
You’re watching a horror movie. The main character is watching television. Staring blankly at the screen. Then a twig snaps. They pause, wait for another noise to happen. Nothing. They turn back to the television. A creak. They pause again. Another creak. They’re frightened now; they stand and silently move toward the fireplace. Carefully, carefully, they pick up the poker and arm themselves. They slide noiselessly across the room until they’re next to the door, ready to attack whoever is in the house. Another creak. Louder. The intruder is getting close. Our hero regrips the handle of the poker, determined to do whatever they have to to get out of there alive. A rustle of clothing. Our hero glances up and realises they can see the doorway and themselves in the reflection of the mirror on the wall opposite. A shadow moves toward them from the hallway, there’s a cocking of a gun –
Our hero leaps forward and smashes the intruder on the head with the poker. It catches him on the shoulder but it’s enough to give them a few vital seconds of breathing space. They kick the gun out of the intruder’s hand and wallop them in the stomach with the poker again. Leaping over the faceless man as he sinks to the ground, they race for the door. They slip – catch themselves on a sideboard that sprawls over the floor behind them. They cannon into the door, wrestling with the door handle.
Swearing, they frantically shove their hand in their pocket, searching for their keys. Nothing. A crash from the hallway – the intruder is coming after them. They look around and notice the keys on the kitchen bench. Without a second thought, they fly across the room, snatch up the keys and shove them roughly in the keyhole. The lock clicks, the door swings open –
– and slams shut.
The hero turns. The intruder, smiling, bears down on them, closing the space between their faces, a sick sick grin on their face.
CUT TO TITLE.
Pace. Notice the rhythm in that little story (please note, that’s not correctly formatted, it’s more prose-y than script-y). It starts slow. Wary. Builds the tension. It rises up and up and up then… BAM! It kicks forward a gear, racing, racing, racing then… BAM! The door slams and the pace slows again as our hero has to face the villain.
The rhythm of the piece is clear. It has a clear crescendo to a climax and then it tapers off to rebuild itself again. That’s not to say that all short scripts have to have that same rhythm – writing is an organic process and it’s different for every story. Pace is best in peaks and troughs. When you follow characters through lows and highs, when the story slows down enough for you to breathe and figure out what’s going on, then takes you by the hand, grins and zooms away without asking if you’re ready.
The pace can be set in post production. It is usually the most obvious place for it to be constructed. But if your script is too slow, unintentionally slow, everything you shoot on the day will be as well and that will be the first problem in the editing suite – and there are enough of them as it is. More often than not short films lose their pace. It’s astonishingly easy to do, even over five minutes or so. But if your characters amble along and nothing happens (and I mean those moments when you’re staring at the screen slightly perplexed that there doesn’t seem to be a point to what these characters are doing), you need to look over the pace again. Fix it in the script and there’ll be less to fix in post.
Think about what your characters want and what they’ll do to get it. Everything they do in every second in your film should be about that journey. If it’s not, cut it. You can probably cut a couple of scenes that do relate to the journey but not strongly enough.
After all, they’re called short films for a reason.