Story: Writing Short Screenplays

Writing Short Films

This is a condensed version of a screenwriting presentation I do for children and young people. It’s based on my screenwriting training, research and there are a few quotes and ideas from the 22 rules of storytelling by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats.
What makes a good short film?

A short film tells a story in a visual medium over a short duration. So in order to write a good short film script you should:

Have an strong story, that is simple enough to be told over a short duration, that lends itself to being told primarily in pictures.

With short film writing, you need to keep in mind that you are not going to have a lot of time to develop characters or have a lot of complicated stories so try to keep it very simple.

Limit characters and locations. Show don’t tell- use props, character action and relationship to others rather than dialogue to reveal things about the character

keep on condensing the script, read it out loud or act it out with a group, this will often show the writer what isn’t working.
Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. Emma Coats


A premise is a small amount of writing (one sentence or two) that defines the story of your film.
1. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Story and Structure The three act structure

Screenwriting is a highly structural form which is also relatively new. There are many screenwriting books out there and many theories. It’s unlikely that you’ll agree with all of the theories and rules within these books, but read as many as you can. Understanding how a film narrative is structured is the first step towards forming a strong screenplay and keeping a firm grip over the destination of your narrative.

Usually a film narrative will have three acts: Set up, Conflict and Resolution.

Set Up: Introduces your main character, the setting and other primary characters. It also introduces what your main character wants and what his/her major problem or flaw is. Usually towards the end of the first act the antagonist is introduced and there is an ‘Inciting Incident’- also known as a catalyst- which tilts the story from order to chaos and sets the story in motion. This inciting incident is stopping your main character from getting what he/she wants.

CONFLICT: In act two your main character takes action and attempts to try and get what he/she wants, but he/she runs into conflict with the antagonist. This is usually because they are going about getting what they want the wrong way, and this relates to their problem or inner fear. The main character goes through major changes as a result of what is happening, this is often referred to as a ‘character arc’ or ‘character development’. Towards the end of the second act it seems as if the main character is not going to get what they want, their struggle reaches a climax and they use what they have learnt about themselves as a tool to achieve their goal. They are forced to confront their internal problem and fears.

RESOLUTION: After confronting their problem and fears, the main character is able to achieve their goal and finally get what they want. Or they may learn what they needed to learn about themselves too late, and it may be a tragic end. Whether it is a positive or negative ending, all of the pieces of the story must come to together at this point.

This structure may sound quite prescriptive but it’s a great starting point and it helps form a strong beginning middle and end.

Even if you don’t agree with these rules, you really have to know them well before you can break them.

Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours
working up front. Emma Coats

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. Emma Coats

Compelling Characters

THE JOURNEY When we watch a film, we usually enter the story through a specific characters eyes- the main character. The audience needs to be able to sympathise in some way with the main character in order to invest meaning into the story and engage properly with the action on screen.
Your main character the ‘protagonist’ should not be passive, they should be actively making things happen. Your main character must go through some kind of change by the end of the story.

Protagonist literally means the person who initiates the ‘agon’ (the struggle).

The Antagonist is a character, obstacle, internal force or situation that is standing in the way of the protagonist getting what they want.
1. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

  If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. 

You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Emma Coats

Compelling Characters

Questions to ask

Here are some useful questions to ask about your main character while you are developing the story.

What do they want?

What is their weakness?

What are they afraid of?

What do they have to do to try and get what they want?

What do they need to find out about themselves? How will they change by the end of the story?

Also have you set your main character a big enough challenge to overcome and can your character be weakened to make the challenge more difficult? For example intensifying your characters problems, weakness and greatest fear.

What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? Emma Coats

Film making is a collaborative process and a screenplay is like an architectural blue-print that other creative people will use to construct the final film.

The screenwriter must think like a camera but not write like a camera. So try not to write ‘Medium shot’ or ‘Long shot’ etc. Simply describe what will be seen on screen. If you write a long descriptive sentence with commas describing several things in a room, this might suggest to the reader that it’s a ‘tracking shot’ where the camera is moving slowly through a space on a track. Whereas if you write lots of short to the point sentences, we might presume that these are fast cutting shots.

Try not to overload the script with dialogue, try to write the very minimum in order not to slow the story down too much.

Exposition is defined as the critical information necessary to understand the plot. Exposition is necessary at the beginning of the film where the writer needs to communicate to the audience where we are, who the characters are and what they have been doing up till now. Sometimes there is a tendency to try and tell the story through expositional dialogue, this can often sound very false and divisive.

Games to generate story: Consequences and Randomness

Label 4 envelopes with the headings:

A character
A dilemma
Resolution/ Ending

Get the group to individually write down as many of the above on small pieces of paper and put them into the corresponding envelopes. Take it in turns to pick out characters, locations dilemmas exec and have fun forming stories. It’s a good ice breaker to coming up with stories and the randomness sometimes works a treat.
Divide the workshop into groups and work together to form ideas for a short film and ‘pitch’ to the rest of the workshop.

1. Main character/protagonist description- who they are, what they want and what they are afraid of?

2. Antagonist/opponent description- who they are or what are they, how are they stopping the main character from getting what they want?

3. Active question- or ‘hook’ This refers to a question about the plot that may intrigue the audience about the conclusion to the story.

4. It might be useful to you to incorporate improvised drama into the scriptwriting process in order to generate dialogue.

Start off with a scene you would like to expand upon with a group, half of the group acting as characters the other half of the group can direct the actors and keep reminding them about what the scene is about.

A good technique is to film these drama sessions so you have a record of the dialogue and any story developments.

The Pixar Game- Fill in the gaps with the group to come up with beginning middle and end.

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.


3 thoughts on “Story: Writing Short Screenplays

  1. Thanks very much for this Kate, I will try the exercises with my groups. The envelopes are a brilliant way to get the story ideas moving. I think we might start by looking at a few location options, then photograph and draw them – so that we know the spaces we can use and how we can create a story around them.

    • Glad you found this helpful Sandra. I like the idea of looking at locations, that’s another great way to be inspired to write a story. Let me know how you get on with the envelopes!

  2. We did the envelope game last week at Pairc primary, we first watched a film called ‘Dangle'(can be seen on you tube) and applied the questions of where? Who was the character? What was the character like? How did it end? Would it have been a different story with a different kind of character? place etc? They really loved doing it, we just managed to finish before the bell rang.

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