Writing a short film: a step-by-step guide for independent filmmakers

Explore our step-by-step guide to writing a short film packed with the hints, tips and tricks you need to start conversations and open doors!



Short films win BIFAs, BAFTAs, Oscars, start careers, and captivate viewers with bite-sized narratives. Writing a short film can be a great way for a new filmmaker to get their name out there or a fun side project for an accomplished writer with a five-minute tale they want to tell. After all, a short film is simply a shorter film with a clear, engaging plot. 


What constitutes writing a ‘short’ film?

While there is no Hollywood regulation that dictates the length of a short film, a short film is commonly defined as a motion picture lasting less than 50 minutes. However, the average length is around 20 minutes.

Live-action, animated, or computer-generated movies can all be short films. Short films, like feature films, tell storylines that have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The finest short films have a clear focus and use only one or two settings and a small number of characters to convey their stories. 


The ideal length for writing a short film screenplay

Keep in mind that one page equals around one minute of screentime when drafting a script. If your short film will be under 50 minutes long, you’ll need a script that’s no more than 50 pages long. A decent starting point is to compose a 15-page short film and see where it leads you. 

Many successful short films have served as proofs of concept for larger projects, allowing the screenwriter or director to acquire finance for the adaptation of their work into a feature film or television series.

The importance of writing a short film for aspiring filmmakers

If you want to direct, produce, or sell feature films, you might believe that producing short films is pointless. Short films, however, are much more than merely film school exercises: they can provide a variety of benefits to an aspiring or experienced filmmaker. 


Finding representation

Short films can be useful as a stepping stone to additional writing or directing opportunities, as well as finding representation. This is especially true for new screenwriters and filmmakers who may not have experience with big-budget projects on their CVs. A short film is straightforward to distribute and provides busy agencies and producers with a fast glimpse into the creative voice and point of view of a filmmaker.


Gaining visibility

A film festival submission is an excellent approach to obtaining exposure for a short film. Having your short film screened at a prominent festival might help you get recognition as a director and be considered for bigger projects. When submitting a film to a festival, keep in mind that the shorter the film, the better your chances are, as most festival programmers want to show as many films as possible. 



Obtaining extensive distribution for an independent feature can offer some major obstacles. Short films, on the other hand, are simple to upload and distribute on sites like Vimeo and YouTube. Remember that you’ll need to do research to identify your target audience. 


Securing funding

Many successful short films have served as proofs of concept for larger projects, allowing the screenwriter or director to acquire finance for the adaptation of their work into a feature film or television series. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, Niell Blomkamp’s District 9, and James Wan’s Saw are all notable instances of feature films that originated as short films. 

A female producer sits in production after writing a short film | FILMD

Your step-by-step guide to writing a short film

There are four fundamental processes for composing short films: brainstorming, outlining/planning, writing, and rewriting/revising.



If you don’t have a plot idea for a short film yet, start by tossing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. The following are some writing prompts that may help you get your creative juices flowing:

What childhood pictures or incidents do you recall clearly?
What are some of the film topics that you are drawn to?
And, what are some of your favourite films in the style or genre that you want to make?

Maybe you’re drawn to stories about family connections, love triangles, underdog triumphs, or certain historical periods. When you have a good concept for a short film, make a list of all the scenes, set pieces, beats, and lines of dialogue you’d want to see in it. Don’t worry about whether or not you’ll incorporate these aspects, or whether or not they’ll make sense: simply write whatever comes to mind. 



Begin to outline the film concept when you’ve limited your brainstorming to a clear and straightforward notion. Short scripts, like feature films, have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s fine to not know what will happen at every point during the outline process because your objective is to sketch out the broad framework of the film. Some writers, on the other hand, believe it beneficial to know every scene or sequence in a film before they begin writing it. A beat sheet is a useful tool to have when outlining.


Writing Your First Draft

Start writing the first draught of your short film script now that you know the outline of your story. Consider short films to be short scripts that follow the same screenplay structure as feature films. When creating a short film script, a good rule of thumb is to “enter late and get out early”—that is, enter each scene as late in the action as possible, and exit as soon as your character has acquired what they needed in the scene. You only have so many pages to tell your narrative, so don’t spend them on unnecessary scenes, dialogues, or history.



“Writing is rewriting,” as the saying goes among authors, and screenwriting is no exception. Give the script to friends or mentors for feedback after you have the first draught on the page. You may discover that you need to restart the procedure and construct a fresh outline when you return to compose the second draught. Conversely, you may only need to edit the screenplay to fine-tune a scene or improve dialogue after your story is strong. 


3 great tips for writing a short film

While it may appear that scripting a short film is simple, squeezing a whole plot into ten or twenty minutes of screen time may be difficult. Here are some pointers to help you write a good short film.


Focus on a very simple premise

Any short film must have a captivating tale, but the finest short films have a clear, succinct, and sometimes extremely basic idea, which is essential when you just have minutes to tell your complete story. Give your main character a very definite aim or a tight time period to achieve it if at all feasible.

Many popular short films, for example, are based on simple plots like two pals on a bike trip, a woman seeking to make a new acquaintance, or a sad son delivering a eulogy. 


Filter out surplus characters and backstories

Short films do not have the time to explore or establish a large amount of character background. How much knowledge about the hero do we really need to be on board with their adventure? Is it necessary to know if they had a former spouse? Isn’t that just a tad too much information?

When it comes to supporting characters, multiple protagonists, or modest speaking roles, only write as many as are required. Is your character being pursued by evil guys, or is he capable of being pursued by only one bad guy? Ask yourself, “Will my primary character still achieve their goal if I lose this character? If you answered “yes”, well, then you know what to do!


Reduce the number of locations

Some of the most memorable short films are set in a single room or locale. This can help you narrow your story as well as keep your budget low, which is important if you want to shoot the film yourself.

“Sam Did It,” a 10-minute narrative set entirely in a mortuary operating room, is an example of an award-winning short set in a single location. Coming up with a concept and a single location and asking yourself, “Can I convey this entire tale without leaving this area?” is a useful activity to do while brainstorming your short film. 

Writing a short film can pay dividends and open a lot of doors. Perhaps even doors you never imagined were ready to be opened.

The takeaway: writing a short film

Navigating the world of scripts and screenplays may be overwhelming, whether you’re an ambitious blockbuster filmmaker or have visions of changing the world with your independent film. What is clear, is that writing a short film can pay dividends and open a lot of doors. Perhaps even doors you never imagined were ready to be opened.

Have you started working on your next short film, or perhaps you’re working on your first! Then check out our article that covers all you need to know about how to pitch your screenplay!

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