Writing Short Films

Hey gang, I’m currently on restricted internet access for the next week, but I promise I’ll finish off my posts about auditions and introduce you to the cast I settled on really soon!

For now, I decided to gather together all my posts on writing short films and short film structure in one place, so that you guys can either give yourselves a crash course or reacquaint yourselves with my brilliant suggestions and ideas for writing shorts (if I do say so myself).

Here are the links!

Short Film Structure: Story Models
Short Film Structure: The Beginning
Short Film Structure: Characters
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 1 – The Twist
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 2 – No Twist
Short Film Structure: Audience 
Short Film Structure: Pace

And last, but not least:

Short Film Structure: THE STORY

Enjoy! Throw me any questions you’ve got and we’ll see if we can work out the answers!

Short Film Structure: The Ending Part II

This week we’re back on short film structure. Still talking about the ending – the twist-less ending.

It’s a popular theme in short film (or short stories) to have a twist (spoken about here) at the end of the film. Of course, not every short film has a twist – some have a naturally progressive ending like most feature films. These endings can be just as tricky to write – as I’ve said before, the ending is the key to any film. If you don’t pull off the ending, the entire film can fall over. It doesn’t matter how amazing your beginning is – the audience will say ‘Started well, but not sure what happened toward the end.’ You can have beaten the second act into submission – the audience will say ‘The rest was great, but what was with the ending? And, of course, the dreaded ‘Looked great, didn’t really get the story.’

I recently came across a short film called ‘Side by Side’ through Twitter (made by Jamie Hooper and the Fingercuff gang) and thought it was a fantastic little film. The thing I liked most about it was the ending.

It’s a very simple story of two unlikely friends. There’s no ‘twist’ that it was all a dream (which, arguably, isn’t a twist, just lazy writing), there’s no sudden death of one of the characters – it’s an innocent portrayal of two people enjoying themselves. And the one moment of conflict is resolved at the end, seconds after the main conflict happens.
The small gesture of the Man revealing that the unicorn was fine after all is all the story needs to reassure the audience that everything is going to be okay. This is, ultimately, what films and books and plays and stories are designed to do. To reassure the audience that they’re going to be okay. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, they’re still going to walk out of it okay. Even though the Girl has a pretty horrible home life, she has a friend in the Man and it’s all going to be okay.
By giving the characters what they need, rather than what they want (although, in this case, it’s the same thing – the Girl wants/needs a father figure, the Man wants/needs a friend), it reassures the audience that life moves on and that they’ll get through it.
Never forget that the most important part of any film is leaving the audience satisfied. If they’re satisfied, they’ll tell their friends about it, then their friends will go and see it and so on and so forth and then, before you know it, Steven Spielberg will be knocking on your door.
What do you mean, that’s not how it happens? Of course it is. How else do people get films made these days?

Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 1- The Twist

We’re back on Short Film Structure this week, talking about the (arguably) most important part of ANY film: the ending.

It’s often the endings which can make a film fall short. Poorly executed, they can leave your audience confused, annoyed and kind of like the person who misses out on a piece of birthday cake – shafted. The reason is this: they invest time and emotion into the characters (whether it’s 9 minutes or 90 minutes) and if the resolution the film is building towards doesn’t work, that’s when they get frustrated that ‘the story didn’t end how it should’ve’.

One of the main reasons that the audience can feel this way is that people have an expectation of where they want the story to go. You expect a rom-com to end with a happily ever after, you expect an action flick to end with the good guy beating the bad guys. When things don’t happen like that – without a good reason why they don’t – people get annoyed.

This leads me to the first point about endings.

+ The Twist:  

Short films and short stories are often famous for the twist. The moment that caps the rest of the story off and reveals it for what it really is. As writing twists goes – it’s really really hard. You effectively wrench the story into a totally different direction in the dying seconds of the film and expect the audience to love it. It takes careful set-up and planning to really pull off a fabulous twist but at the base of it all is this:

Give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect.

I HATE that phrase. The first time I heard it, I was at university and it felt like one of those high and mighty know-it-all phrases that never makes any sense.

Until you figure out what people are actually trying to say when they say it.

Watch this short – there are spoilers in the next paragraph, so watch it now:

Lucky‘ Directed by Nash Edgerton – Blue Tongue Films

Yep, it’s another Nash Edgerton short. He makes good films, so sue me. This is another great example of a really well executed short film. And the best bit is that even though the protagonist gets killed at the end, it’s still a satisfying short to watch.

It’s because he gives the audience what they want, in a way they don’t expect. I tend to call it ‘The Double Twist’ or ‘The Final Kick‘. The entire film is all about the audience hoping against all hope that he’ll somehow get out of it – even though it seems impossible that he will.

And he does.

As you breathe out with him as he manages to regain control of the car, you can’t help but be disappointed that it was so ‘easy’. He escaped. What happens now? It’s incredibly anti-climatic. And then in the next second, he turns off the ignition and the car explodes. He doesn’t get away with it and the second twist/final kick happens when you’re catching your breath, which makes the explosion more terrifying because your breath gets caught in your throat.

As you watch it, you wonder how he’s going to get out of it because it seems impossible that he will. Therefore, you expect that he won’t. So when he does, it’s disappointing – until the car explodes.

You’ve got what you wanted, in a way you don’t expect.

That’s what people mean by that awkward phrase. Know your audience as well as your characters. Know what they’ll be thinking at that exact moment, know where they’ll be wanting the story to go. Once you know that, help take them there. Then once they’re there, whip the rug out from beneath their feet.

It’s something I tend to think about once I’ve got a draft of the script written instead of starting the story thinking of the audience. Start with the characters (often they’ll be more surprising than you expect them to be anyway) and then figure out what the audience will be thinking during each beat of the story.

Go to one of my earlier posts (click here), and watch ‘Spider’. Also made by Nash Edgerton, the ending is fantastic and another great example of the double twist. If you haven’t seen it already, watch it. If you’ve already watched it – read on.

When the spider drops into Jill’s lap and she loses control of the car, you think that’s it. It’s all over. Jack’s gone one step too far and they’re dead. But no, they manage to pull the car over and she jumps out of the car, trying to get the spider off her. You have barely got time to be relieved when Jack throws the spider at her and – as a reflex – she jumps backward.

The double twist makes that moment so much stronger (and ‘Spider’ has a triple twist too with the ambulance). You want Jack to learn from his mistakes but he won’t until he’s made the BIGGEST mistake – at the highest cost.

Of course, not all short films have twists – I’ll be blogging soon about twist-less short films – but I think twists in shorts can be a really effective way of making them memorable (and enjoyable) to watch.


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