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The Agony of Short-Film Writing

By Persephone Vandegrift

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Yes, the glory and agony of screen writing.  Ah, more agony than glory, actually. But still, we writers smile through the pain and laugh through the…the...pain. 

Aren’t we fortunate that the same wall of fire we pass through for our feature scripts can be applied to our short scripts? A short script should be easier, right? Because it’s shorter, right? (I still can’t answer either of these.)

Writing a short script is a fantastic introduction to screenwriting and a great way to get your name out there. Yet keep in mind, the short script format is just as challenging, maybe even a little more so, than a feature. 

Ideally, all the elements of a feature need to be present in a short.  The beloved three-act structure, even in a five-minute film, is a vital component to your script.  A feature allows you 90-115 pages to build your conflict, characters, climax and resolution but a short script only gives you, well, a short time to do all that. But when you do incorporate them, it shows the world you understand story structure at its heart, and that you are writing to engage and entertain.

Some may find the short format overwhelming at first. How can I write a ten-page script and have it make sense?  Start with a simple story line, a few characters; establish what dialogue and what specific visuals need to be in your script for it to make sense. It isn’t easy. Just keep practicing. Make it shorter, make it longer and then make it even shorter than before. 

Experiment with it – change the scenes around. Take out all of the dialogue and look at your chosen scenes.  Are these scenes showing the story you want to tell? Read them out loud and ask a few people to listen or they can read them out loud while you listen.  What visuals are coming through the strongest?

Take a closer look at your dialogue, read it out loud, is any of it too on the nose, is it indicative of your characters? If the dialogue is weighing the story down, especially with a short script, then you may not need it. You can always put it back in if someone wants you to turn your short into a feature. (Sorry, not if, when!)

Less is more, of course, but you still have to have a story. Can the way a character looks or gestures make up for extraneous dialogue?  Can you do without that gorgeous scene you just stayed up until 4am writing? Or is that gorgeous scene able to take the place of two scenes? Three?

Some people even storyboard their short script first or collage it. They say it helps to streamline their scenes and even dialogue.

Personally, one approach I take is that I write through the entire story, knowing full well there are gobs of dialogue and unnecessary scene-age, but that then allows me to go back in and keep paring it down. It also depends on the type of story it is.  Genre has a tremendous effect on the amount of dialogue you need and can often define the key scenes that you require for your short.

Watch as many award-winning short films as you can with a critical eye to see what it was that made them award winning. Some may break all of the rules, (and we ha…love them for it), some might be dialogue heavy because it suits the story and the characters, some might be more visual and less conversational, and then there are lucky ones that combine both.

Talk to other writers – some are more gregarious with their advice and time than others.  Maybe one of them will let you shadow their process or if you ask nicely, they might even give you some feedback.

You will find the process for writing short films is different for everyone, but one thing we can all agree on is to keep at it – challenge yourself to a three-page script, a ten-page script, twenty-page script. Then take your twenty-page script and shrink it down to six and your ten-page down to three…easy-peasy now, right?

And after spending months and months of that exercise, pretty soon you will find yourself developing an affinity (not to be confused with toe-curling joy) for the short-film writing process that you can apply to your feature scripts and even your other literary projects. I can’t tell you how long it may take to reach that happy plateau but I do know it does happen…eventually. The agony becomes more like a badge of courage, like walking on a bed of hot coals. Really. My blisters are nearly healed.

So, write hard my writerly friends, and may the short-film writing force be with you!

About Persephone Vandegrift

Persephone Vandegrift is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, producer, and fiction writer. She is the co-writer and producer of MYTHFEST – A one-act play dedicated to women in classical mythology now on the Fringe festival circuit. She is the writer of the multi award-winning screenplay, Death Of A Mortal Woman, and WW2 TV pilot, Esther’s Den.

You can watch All Things Hidden online at: and check out its Independent Music Award-Winning soundtrack here.

Persephone can be contacted on Twitter: @Persephwrites

Screenwriting Article by Persephone Vandegrift

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