Scriptwriting Techniques

Scriptwriting Techniques [6 Things To Avoid]

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In this article, we look at a few different scriptwriting techniques and things to avoid when creating your first script.

We’ve all seen shelves at bookstores and libraries packed full of filmmaking books about how to write movies. You can probably list some from memory: Syd Field’s Screenplay, Robert McKee’s Story, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!

However, while these titles can be helpful for writing a feature screenplay, they don’t usually offer practical scriptwriting techniques for short films.

Adaptation screenshot
Screenwriting Guru “Robert McKee,” Adaptation. 2002

What’s A Short Film?

Don’t worry, that’s not a philosophical question. My classmates in film school would label their short films as their magnum opus, calling card, reason for living, etc. What they didn’t do was clearly state what their film was actually meant to be.

Subsequently, here’s a list of mistakes to avoid when you write your short film…

1. Showing Off

My favorite example of this was a friend who told me he had “cracked” Roshomon. So, he set his short film in space, with multiple perspectives on a space murder. Needless to say, he did not finish shooting his film.

My friend was so consumed with showcasing his analytical chops, and as a result, he forgot to tell a story that meant something to him.

The lesson is that when it comes to scriptwriting techniques, don’t worry about showing off. Above all else, make us care about your characters and what they experience!

2. Following the Feature Film Structure

Most classes and books about writing films concentrate on a classical three act dramatic structure. For that reason, many early filmmakers make the mistake of trying to cram a feature film’s worth of story into their 10-minute short.

However, short films allow us to be imaginative and examine moments, maybe even wax poetic.

Think the two worlds can’t coexist? Look no further than Star Wars creator George Lucas as a counterpoint.

His 1967 short film THX-1138 4EB  was “based on the concept that we live in the future and that you could make a futuristic film using existing stuff.” THX was a personal film for Lucas and eventually preserved by the US National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

As a result, Lucas’ film succeeded across the board because he captivated his audience, told a personal story, and showed the world his unique perspective.

3. Setting the Wrong Intentions

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when it comes to scriptwriting techniques is forgetting to set your intentions before you start. What do I mean by setting intentions? Here’s what starting a script without intention looks like:

“I’ll get this short into festivals, then someone will give me money for a feature.”

On its face, this statement seems to have plenty of intention. But let’s take a closer look at where it falls short:

  • Firstly, it forgoes any mention of story or personal connection whatsoever.
  • Secondly, it assumes a film festival run. (There are graveyards full of unscreened films.)
  • Finally, it views the short as merely a stepping stone for something better, a feature funded by a benevolent investor.

A lot of times, you’ll hear the question “Why this film?” The urgency comes from your need to share, to invent, to express yourself.

However, audiences watch movies to feel something. Festival programmers know this. They have to sift through stepping stone movies all day long before finding the movies they actually want to screen.

4. Picking the Wrong Topic

Similarly to the last category, your topic choice has a big impact on your scriptwriting techniques. Another way to ask this question is, “Does this idea have legs?”

Sometimes we have a great idea leading to a huge punchline, a big scare, or a thrilling chase. But for some reason when it gets filmed, the moment just falls flat.

This is due to the idea not having legs. When an idea has legs, it contains greater implications than the progression of the plot – it means something bigger.

Dawn of the Dead is an idea with legs. Rather than merely being a frightening zombie movie, in addition, it also has biting commentary about how consumerism makes mindless zombies of us all. Maybe there’s a greater metaphor in the story you want to tell. It probably means your idea has legs!

Dawn of the Dead screenshot
Dawn of the Dead, 1978. George Romero

5. Trying To Make It A Hollywood Blockbuster

Far too often, students and first-time filmmakers want to show how official they can make their productions. Consequently, this leads to wasting money in the wrong areas like catering, high-end camera packages, and fancy accommodations.

Hollywood can afford those things because they have millions of dollars to burn.

In contrast, every penny you spend must go in front of the camera because your movie’s success depends on maximizing resources.

Above all, the most important elements for your short film are character, story, and emotions. You don’t need any of the other stuff. All you need is a good idea and your phone camera.

Check out the Duplass brothers’ $3 Sundance short This is John (2003) for a shining example of scriptwriting techniques that embrace limitations.

6. Neglecting Other Elements of Filmmaking

Maybe you need to pack more details into your short. Before getting hung up on world-building, remember to use the other elements of filmmaking as scriptwriting techniques to enhance tone, mood, and psychology.

How can lighting, sound, or editing help tell your story? David Lynch has made a career of deeply affecting us with surreal sound design and evocative lighting.

Mulholland Drive screenshot
Mulholland Drive, 2001. David Lynch

Finally, an added benefit of using traditional film techniques to convey your story is generally a shorter run time.

The shorter your film, the better your chances of festival programming and online watchability. Programmers prefer briefer shorts for their showcases, allowing more films to be included in their lineups.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, the most valuable scriptwriting techniques for short films occur at the very beginning of the process.

Before you put your plot into motion, set the intention for your film. Do you want a festival run? Is it a film to be watched online? Perhaps it’s a proof of concept for your feature. Maybe you just want to make a film for yourself.

All of these intentions will certainly require different approaches to writing. Regardless of the answer, embrace limitations, use the tricks at your disposal, and make the movie you’d want to watch!

Simon Nagel
Simon Nagel
Simon is a writer, adventurist, and alpaca enthusiast. He specializes in narrative storytelling, evocative dialogue, and multi-dimensional characters. Follow him on Twitter.
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