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How to Write a Script For a Short Film: An 8-Step Guide.

The ultimate guide to writing a short film that
will kickstart your career.

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Short Film
July 1, 2020 14 comments
How to Write a Script for a Short Film

How to write a script for a short film: an 8-step guide. 


Ever considered writing a short film as a way into Hollywood? As a screenwriter, you might think that your only ticket to a career is by writing a low to mid-budget spec or a studio blockbuster.

But in reality, an immediate (and practical) way to kickstart your screenwriting career is a much smaller move. In fact, it’s short.

There’s a reason that the Academy dedicates three categories to short films every awards season (animated, live-action and documentary).

Filmmakers like James Wan and Damien Chazelle all got their start with short films, and by learning from them you can start doing the same.

Here’s a step-by-step plan on how to do it.

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How to write a short film step #1: Watch dozens of short films.

It all starts with an idea. But before you begin to write yours, it’s a great idea to immerse yourself in the world of short films.

Do some extensive research on the most successful short films in the genre of your choice.

Get watching short films. 

Shorts.TV

The 20 Best Short Films of the Decade

The Best Short Films of All Time on YouTube

Pixar’s Theatrical Shorts

 Short of the Week

Take mental notes as you watch.

While watching, take note of the concept, story, characters and logistics (if you plan to shoot it yourself).

What does the protagonist want?

What’s the style, tone and theme?

What’s at stake?

How many scenes and practical locations are there?

Most importantly, why do you like or dislike the short film?



How to write a short film step #2: Break down short films.



As we’ve previously mentioned for feature films, outlining is the best way of getting inside a story and seeing how it all fits together.

We recommend you check out our post How to Write a Script Outline for more info but, in a nutshell, it involves writing down briefly what happens in each scene as you watch the film.

You’ll then end up with a document that you can analyze and break down in terms of character motivations, conflicts, goals, etc.

Writing a short film step #3: Read short film scripts.

Not only should you be dissecting short films via outlines, but also by reading them. Below you’ll find a short film script example in every genre.

Again, we’ve discussed this before but reading produced scripts is one of the most important things you should be doing as a screenwriter.

If you are so inspired, you can also directly reach out to the screenwriters and potentially formulate new partnerships.

If you’re looking for a short film script example to read, here are links to databases of produced and unproduced scripts:

NYU/Tisch Short Screenplay Bank

Simply Scripts

Show Me Shorts

how to write a script for a short film

How to write a short film step #4: Get inspired!

For a little inspiration, take a quick look at these three filmmakers—all of whom utilized writing short films as a way to get their features made.

Damien Chazelle.

There is no “right way” when it comes to making the jump from short to feature, and the story of Whiplash certainly proves it.

In fact, writer-director Chazelle took the most powerful scene from his feature-length script and turned it into a short that won him both the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance in 2013 and the backing of financiers for his buzzworthy feature.

Watch the Whiplash short film to feature comparison here.

Jared Hess.

Peluca may have been a film school assignment, but writer-director Jared Hess soon began thinking his short had potential as a feature.

After he and his brother adapted and expanded the original ideas, the short’s lead character, Seth, soon transformed into Napoleon Dynamite.

Watch the short here.

James Wan.

Before there was Saw the movie there was Saw the short. Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell created the short film as their proof-of-concept for their successful franchise.

This gave Wan an opportunity to showcase his vision and style in a way that further supported Whannell’s script when pitching to studios.

Watch the short here.

How to write a script for a short film step #5: Find your WHY.

Q. What makes a good short script?


A. Those that were written for a reason.

Before anything, it’s important to be in tune with the real reason why you want to write a short film script.

Damien Chazelle, Jared Hess and James Wan all had different reasons for writing and creating their short films. What’s yours?

Imagine that you’re in the middle of a Q&A at a film festival, or during a pitch meeting. You’re asked why you made your short film or why they should watch it.

How would you reply?

Answering the WHY will not only help give you a clear direction, but it’ll trigger your passion.

As a result, you will put less pressure on yourself to “make it happen” because the story will come more naturally to you.

How to write a short film step #6: create a single moment.

Like TV or features, a short film should be based on a hook that grabs the audience’s attention—but even more so.

Unlike TV and features, when writing a short film you won’t have the time and space to create backstories and explore multiple storylines.

Rather, focus on one specific protagonist who has one simple goal with something at stake. Create a single moment in their life that we can get excited about.

If you’re stumped for ideas, try reflecting on your upbringing, certain life experiences, and/or strong passions that you have.

Choose one experience from your life and hone it into a specific, powerful moment. Then, exaggerate it.

This way, you can build the story from there. Most importantly, you will create conflict while still maintaining a level of authenticity in your short.

Consider where your protagonist is in their overall journey.

Now that you have thought of the single moment, place the scene in the context of this character’s journey. Where does this moment land in their story?

Having an idea of the placement will help with your approach to the context and overall story.

For example, does this moment set the character off on their journey (call to action)? Is this the point where you raise the stakes (midpoint) or is this the surprising twist (climax)?

Writing a short film doesn’t leave much time for genre-blending.

While TV shows or feature films typically have more than one genre (Game of Thrones has fantasy, action, romance, and more), it’s best that you stick to one specific genre to keep your short script clear and distinct.

Take a look at the powerful moment you have chosen. What is the overall tone of the scene?

Defining the tone will help give you an idea of the ultimate writing style that comes naturally to you.

How to write a script for a short film step #7: create an outline.

The most effortless way to write your short film script is to first create an outline.

Writing down the scenes you have in mind (both the physical location and a summary of what occurs) will make it easier for you to focus on the dialogue and details when writing the short script.

Not all writers do this, but many find it beneficial to write multiple drafts of an outline before committing to the actual short film script.

If the story isn’t exciting to read in prose, then it’s unlikely to be just because it’s been transferred into script form.

Nail the outline first and you’ll potentially save yourself weeks of rewrites down the line.

how to write a script for a short film

Writing a short film step #8: write that first draft.

Don’t get frustrated if your script seems too long, or that dialogue is not “there.” Both structure and dialogue will come with revisions.

As you write, answer these kinds of questions:

What is the overall purpose of each scene?

Is my protagonist proactive?

What moral dilemmas do they face?

How much pressure are they under?

What hard choices are they being forced to make?

How is this scene reflecting the theme?

Be honest with yourself. Is your protagonist really driving the action forward, or are they coasting through the script without much trouble?

If it’s the latter, this means you either need to find a way to make the scene more interesting or get rid of it overall.

Writing a short film means sticking to screenwriting structure.

Yes, there are many examples of experimental, avant-garde short films out there. But, just like a movie or TV show, the best short film scripts contain a 3-Act structure.

Does it take too long to introduce the conflict?

Are the stakes raised at the midpoint?

Are you leaving each scene on a cliff-hanger?

Does the protagonist earn at the end what we’ve been rooting for?

Remember, the ending is determined by the overall emotional reaction you want to elicit from the audience.

However, make sure that whatever bold choices you make while writing a script for a short film, make sense logistically.

When thinking of locations, put your producer’s cap on. What locations do you have access to if you want to film the short yourself?

Short film script format.

A short film is still a film. So we highly recommend you write your short film script according to industry standards.

Instead of writing with Microsoft Word, use one of our top five best screenwriting software options or one of these free screenwriting software.

Not only will your short film script format be done for you, but you can create index cards, compile a scene-by-scene overview and highlight the arc of your character.

How long is a script for a short film?

When it comes to writing the first draft, focus on the overall story instead of the page count.

Start with the WHY, and take the time to outline your ideas. Put all of that passion on the page, and then pull back.

It’s better to tighten your short to the right page count than to not have enough to begin with.

As a golden rule, use each page wisely. Your goal should be to have your short anywhere between 5-20 minutes.



3 factors to consider when it comes to length.

1. Budget. If you plan to shoot your short film script yourself, the longer it is, the more expensive it will be.

2. Film Festivals.
 The shorter but compelling shorts may have more success because festivals only have limited time slots.

3. Contests. Most short film script contests have page-count limits of around 20 pages.

Ultimately, your story will determine the appropriate length.

A fast-paced 20-minute short is going to be much more compelling than a 10-minute short in one room that is slow and dialogue-heavy.

If you’re shooting your own script, do not get caught up in perfecting the script itself. What’s more important is capturing the “feel” of the story—that is, what’s going to transpose onto the set and onto the screen.

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How to write a script for a short film step #8: get feedback.

Filmmaking is a collaborative experience. While your script is your vision, it’s important to get feedback from other writers to make sure the story is as good as it can be.

We have a Short Film Coverage service where you can get feedback from a pro screenwriter on your short script.

Furthermore, if you do not plan to direct your own short, this is a great opportunity to find the right person who will.

Be open and honest with the other creators about where you think your script stands. If there’s something you feel isn’t working, perhaps they can help you find the right solution that will get you even more inspired.

how to write a script for a short film

How to write a short film: conclusion.

Short films are not “lesser” than television pilots or feature films. If James Wan or Damien Chazelle had that mentality, they would not have the successful career that they have today.

Short films are compact and strategic. They can be a very powerful way of conveying a huge amount of depth and meaning in a small amount of time.

If you’re not happy with the idea of your writing career being in someone else’s hands, creating the pathway for yourself by writing a short film.

Get inspired. Use your resources. Write that first scene.

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How do you find writing a script for a short film differs from TV or features? Have you written a short script and shot it yourself? Or do you plan to enter it in contests? What’s your experience been with writing a short film? Let us know in the comments section below!

Liked this post? Read more on how to write a script for a short film…

How to Use Short Film Scripts to Start Your Writing Career

Short Film Ideas: How to Come Up With 100% Unique and Filmable Ideas

How to Become a Screenwriter: A Pro’s Guide to Unlocking Your Career

[© Photo credits: Pexels, Unsplash]

14 Comments
  1. Joseph Israel says:

    Do you have a group where aspiring writers could share ideas on Facebook

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Not yet 🙂

  2. Fiona Katua says:

    Thank you so much it was so helpful I enjoyed the tips but I was thinking what if I want to write a series what can I do? Do I still follow the same steps

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Here’s a post on How to Write a TV Pilot.

  3. Mitchell Block says:

    I think a simple model for a short film is to create two characters, have them solve one problem and be very clever. Less is more.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good idea, Mitchell!

  4. John Lennon Cohen says:

    Hi Scriptreaderpro’
    May I begin by congratulating you on a fantastic organisation to assist and mentor us would-be screenwriters. I do hope that everyone there is safe and well during these strangest of times?
    Well, I have been writing seriously about 8 years having achieved a degree in Movie/TV/Radio Production. However I have been writing since second level schooling way back in the 1970’s. This emanated from my uncle who wrote and produced theater shows and always brought me alone not only for the finished product but also his writing process.
    Anyway, opportunity only came at a later stage in my life when I achieved the degree and began writing and thus far I have self published 2 novels, a book of verse, and a full feature screenplay.
    Also I have penned many shorts and have ideas for Comedy TV Series which I am actively working. The first one is Titled (Working) Joe Mee TD and the second is The Escapades of Cathy and Dave. I have a Pilot/Short script penned for each of these but what do I do next? Will Irish/British Humor be recognized in the US? There are so many things to think about!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, John – we have a post called How to Write a TV Pilot Script: The Ultimate 8-Step Guide that you might find useful. Best of luck with the script!

  5. Emmanuel Iroh says:

    Thanks. It is rewarding

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Emmanuel!

  6. Shalini Singh says:

    It was really appreciated unique approach. I loved it.lets see what can be done.
    Thank you

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it helpful, Shalini 🙂

  7. Anastasia says:

    Fantastic! I’m applying this right away.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Sounds good – thanks, Anastasia!

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