Short films and feature films are often given totally different treatment. This is most obvious when you look at the world of film festivals: the categories are almost always separated in film festivals, and that there is a massive amount of festivals specifically geared toward short films. After all, The Film Fund is aimed at short films (under 15 minutes in length).
Is there a major difference in how to make a short film vs how to make a feature film? Or are short films just feature films compressed into a quarter of the length?
The answer is: yes, short films and feature films are really all that different. Short films aren’t just compressed feature films. The structure fundamentally changes, as you have usually under 20 minutes to convey to the audience everything that they must understand.
Why Should I Make Short Films?
Short films are the best way to start making a name for yourself and to attract attention at film festivals. There are tons of film festivals specifically catered to short movies, which you can read more about here.
Even beyond the festival circuit, short movies are easier to post on YouTube and then spread around online. Casual social media users or people scrolling on YouTube are far more likely to watch a short film they never heard of than a feature film.
Remember that short films have just as much artistic merit as feature films. Many major film directors who are now known for their feature films got their start by making short films. Martin Scorcese’s first film “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” was 9 minutes long. Ava DuVernay’s first film “Saturday Night Life” was 12 minutes long. Sofia Coppola’s first film “Lick the Star” was 14 minutes long.
Short films are also a great way to hone in on your technique and learn what to improve. As acclaimed writer-director, Jason Reitman once said, “I think it’s a mistake for young filmmakers to just buy digital equipment and shoot a feature. Make short films first, make your mistakes and learn from them.”
How to Make a Short Film: Short Film Structure
If you’re wondering how to make a short film, keep in mind that most short films follow a three-act structure.
Act 1 is the beginning. The main purpose of this act is to gain the attention of the viewers and introduce them to the story.
Act 2 is the middle of the story, which plays off of its core idea. Whatever main plot you wrote in your logline is going to primarily be occurring in Act 2. This act will take up the majority of your short film.
Act 3 is the end of the story. Act 3 can end in the middle of the climax or it can contain a falling action and resolution.
Captivate Your Audience
Even more than feature films, short films are a great way to start the film by starting in the middle of the action.
Your audience is also more likely to be captivated if your concept is unique. If the setting or type of characters or overall situation is something you don’t see often, that’s one way to get your audience hooked.
If you’re going to use title credits, make sure they appear very briefly. By the end of the first minute, you want the audience to have an idea of what your short film is about.
Keep It Simple
Obviously, you don’t have that much time to tell your story. Because of this, you must keep your plot relatively simple. You lack the time (and probably the resources) to make your film Christopher Nolan-esque.
Your short movie should only explore one major concept, which leads to the next section: have a central question.
Have a Central Question
If your short film is made up of entertaining moments that don’t lead anywhere, the entertainment value doesn’t mean much, since you don’t have a cohesive film. You must have a question that drives the action of the story.
One way to check to see if your short film has a real plot is to see if you can make a logline out of it. A logline is a brief summary of a screenplay that serves as a pitch for your film. You can read more about how to write a great logline here.
A logline includes the inciting incident of the film, the protagonist, and the protagonist’s goal, and the main conflict. If you’re not able to summarize your short film into a logline, then something is wrong. Either your short film is too complicated or it’s lacking something.
In addition to a central question, many short movies aim to also give that question an underlying theme. A theme is broader and more universal; it could relate to love, friendship, technology, or many other things. It gives your film a deeper meaning. If your short film is comedic, a deeper theme is not as important.
Make Efficient Use of Time
According to Raindance Film Festival, there is one main principle for short films: less is more.
When you’re writing your short movie, make sure you aren’t wasting any time with unnecessary elements. One way to do this is to heavily inspect your dialogue. Here are some things you should be looking to get rid of in your dialogue: if your characters are saying the same thing multiple times if any dialogue can be replaced with an action that conveys the same meaning to the viewers, if the dialogue doesn’t reveal anything about your character, or if the dialogue doesn’t at all relate to the central question.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. If one line of dialogue doesn’t exactly propel the story forward but it’s very amusing and clever, then feel free to keep it in. But these are the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself about your dialogue. There should be no fluff; every element in your short movie should be adding something to it.
An even bolder, but often necessary, move is to remove entire scenes from your short film. Take a good look at each of your scenes and consider: what’s the purpose of this scene, does this scene contribute to the central question, and does the scene move the film forward?
Compared to dialogue, with scenes, there is less leeway when it comes to these questions. If you have an entire scene in your short film that doesn’t have a clear purpose, doesn’t contribute to the central question, or doesn’t really lead anywhere, that’s a problem. As painful as it may be to remove the scene, it must go.
Scenes usually range between one and three minutes (one to three pages in your screenplay). In a short movie, you can get away with including some short scenes that last a little under a minute. This means that in a 15-minute film, you may end up with only about 15 scenes. As such, each scene must be absolutely necessary and must build off previous scenes.
One strategy to make scenes blend together faster and better is to enter each scene late and leave early. Your audience has a better imagination than you’d think, and if your writing is clear, the audience will be able to piece everything together well enough.
Make Good Use of Characters and Locations
Another consideration that must go into whether or not you should keep or rework a scene is if the scene gives too much screen time to minor characters. Whenever you make a film, you need to make sure the audience can connect with the characters. In a short movie, you have limited time, so you should keep the number of characters to a minimum. Giving too much screen time in a scene to characters that won’t even appear much later on only serves to confuse the audience with too many characters. You can’t go wrong with having as few characters as possible. Countless short films only center around one or two people.
You don’t necessarily have to have one main protagonist. The role can be shared by two or three characters. For example, your film can be led equally by a romantic couple or a dynamic duo. However, if you have more than one protagonist, take time to consider if that’s really necessary for your film. Having just one protagonist is always a safe bet.
A similar premise applies to locations. Keeping locations to a minimum makes your audience more likely to be able to follow the story. Remember that plenty of short films only take place in one room. Use what you have available—maybe even your own home as a studio.
End Your Short Film Strong
A memorable ending is a must for your short film. A very common way to accomplish this is to end with a plot twist or a punchline. What this turns out to be is totally dependent on what your story is. One strategy you could employ is to put yourself in the head of a casual viewer. Ask: how does he or she expect this story to end? And then subvert that expectation.
Also, when it comes to endings, feature films are more likely to tie up all loose ends. The audience is investing two hours of their time into the film, so they tend to like to see everything be resolved (unless this ambiguous ending is done particularly well). Short movies don’t require such a lengthy investment, so they can get away with cliffhanger endings easier. In fact, there is a bit of an expectation that not everything will be resolved.
Basically, while feature films are likely to have a fleshed-out falling action and resolution, short films often end at (or right after) the climax of the story.
Feature films almost always combine diegetic and non-diegetic sound. However, in short movies, you can get creative and use just one or the other. You have the ability to use primarily (or entirely) non-diegetic sound, and let only narration or music supplement what the audience sees on the screen. Of course, this only works if you don’t have any dialogue, unless you’re opting for the silent film format. Alternatively, you can only use diegetic sound and avoid any narration or music. The shortened length makes it so that you can use just one or the other without tiring the audience.
Finally, a major difference between feature films and short films is with budgets. With a length that can be five to twenty times longer than a short film, feature films require a larger crew, a larger cast (more characters usually enter the fray), and more sets. Basically, there is more of everything.
However, none of this discounts the massive amount of time, effort, and money that you need for a short film. Short films can run up quite a substantial cost as well.
Luckily, The Film Fund may be able to help you with that. You can write a one-sentence pitch and submit it to one of The Film Fund’s contests for the chance to win up to $10,000.
3 thoughts on “Short Film Structure: How It Differs From Feature Films”
Great article! It would be helpful to have a ballpark idea of the breakdown of the three acts and how many pages each one should be in a short film. I haven’t found anyone discussing this online.
Thanks for reading and for your feedback! We typically recommend no more than fifteen pages total for a short film.
Hope it’s helpful!
Christian López Lamelas