It's Friday night, 48 Hour Film Challenge Weekend. Your team just received their genre, prop, and dialogue, and they are terrible (Western? Pudding? “Have you come to Jesus?” No ) They need to start shooting in three hours, but you have to create the world and characters they'll be shooting in two. What do you do, hotshot? WHAT DO YOU DO?
Relax. No honestly, put your feet up, light one if you smoke, go put the dog out on the lead. Feeling better? Good, there's a quick and easy method to short screen writing in the rush of competition. The following steps will guide you to short film victory...or barring that at least get you finished on time so your team doesn't disown you.
Step 1: Relax
I know I'm repeating myself, but so what? If you are stressed, if you are tense, if you feel the hot breath of that deadline (or some production assistant) breathing down your neck, you will freeze. That's how it works, artists freeze in a clutch. If you freeze up, your only options will be to quit (team hates you now) or recycle something you've already written (only works if you've written a Western about Jesus and pudding). So relax, take a load off. Hire a babysitter, put the dog out (again), find a quiet place in the house or a room to yourself and...
Step 2: Drink
There's been a lot of controversy in the written world about the effectiveness of drinking and writing. Here's my take. Artists are incredibly self-conscious people. Whether we like to admit it or not, we get into the art business to seek the approval other people to stroke some kind of bruised artist ego. There's nothing wrong with this, it's just the way of it. That said, a self-conscious person is prone to second guessing themselves. It's easy to criticize and rewrite your work if you are Charles Bukowski and literally have no deadline, but this is not the case. You have two hours and a whole lot of friends/associates waiting. If you start drinking, you can get out of your head and let the story tell itself. You'll be less self-conscious about whether or not your jokes are funny or whether the romantic subplot seems legit if you've got a buzz on. Every one of my short screenplays has a four drink minimum, preferably boiler-makers.
Step 3: Character
Okay, enough foreplay, let's get down to technique. I highly recommend a strong central character, a Lead if you will. The Lead must be compelling despite living in a 3-5 minute world.
To do this, you must give the character three things; Voice, Ethics, and Motivation. Voice is the character's distinct dialogue. A compelling character will look and sound different from the supporting characters (think James Bond, Tyler Durden, the Joker, Don Draper). They stand out because their phrasing is markedly different from all the other characters. This can be accomplished through accent, tone, or what they are and aren't willing to discuss. Ethics are the character's beliefs. A character must act in a way that is distinct and consistent. You must know how a character feels about religion, killing, sex, friendship, all the little things that create the impression of a real person. Once you have those ethics in mind, don't stray from them. Motivation is self-descriptive. A story is nothing more the collective motives of its characters. Everyone in the script (especially the Lead) is moving towards a goal. Any scene or piece of dialogue that does not move you towards this goal is pointless exposition and should be cut.
Step 4: Setting
Setting is always tricky for short film contests. The best thing is to know ahead of time what locations your team has access to and form a script around that. For example, if you know that your team has access to a warehouse, two residential homes and an office, it wouldn't make much sense to set your story a Mad Max-style dystopian hellscape.
Step 5: Supporting Characters
When you get a team together, it's tempting to want to write a role for each person in the screenplay. After all, each member has dedicated their weekend, no one wants to get sent home at the last minute. This is a problem because too many characters equal too many motivations and not enough time or space for the Lead, especially in a 3-5 minute short. The rule I follow is to write the screenplay with as many characters as seems necessary to complete the story but no more than that. It may seem harsh, but if you have to rewrite the story to add characters, you're basically diluting the soup. Do you know what diluted soup tastes like?
Step 6: Remember the Arc
To be compelling, your story must contain a complete story arc. A complete story arc involves three acts. If this seems insane to do in 3-5 minutes, that's because it is. Nevertheless, human beings (your audience) prefers completed stories, just like we prefer completed jokes, complete disclosure, complete service, etc. etc. Here's the breakdown: Act I- Introduce the characters, setting, and problem; Act II- Lead gets in a lot of trouble; Act III- Problem Solved. This is a simplification, but if your story cannot conform to this, you are not writing a complete story.
Step 7: Editing
Remember that two hour deadline? Good, then you know the script does not have to be perfect. Knock it out, give it a quick read (if you used Final Draft the format is probably correct) and let it go. Congratulations, your job is done. You can now sit back and watch your team go through forty-six hours of hair pulling, teeth gnashing, film-making fun. That is unless...
Step 8 Rewrites
Neither the director, nor the producer, nor the actors live in your head. You can check. I'll wait. See, they don't. For this reason, they might not understand your characters or their motivation or the plot in general. In this situation, the director might ask for a rewrite. Here's what you do: a) explain the characters, motivation, plot, to the very best of your ability. If you can get everyone on the same page then less work for everyone. If a) doesn't work b) rewrite the script, include the production notes to the best of your ability. Screenwriters inherently hate production notes because its an admission that your script is not perfect. The reality of it is, your script is definitely not perfect Even the best movies have horrible moments (i.e. Tim Roth screaming with a bad American accent in Reservoir Dogs, or any slave dialogue in Gone with the Wind). Put your head down, do your rewrite, and make something that everyone can work with. Besides, if the film is great you can still take credit for it...and if it's garbage you can always blame the director/producer/editor/actors/key grip/PA/DA/craft services.
I hope this little guide helps you turn out fast and awesome scripts. Beat that clock