short film structure template

The short film and the age of withering attention spans

For decades, the short film was relegated to film students and voting members of the Academy, but no longer. 

The evolution of entertainment has brought about a time in which short films have the best chance of gaining large audiences, especially among younger viewers. 

Usually anywhere between three and twenty minutes long, short films are a perfect match for those of us who have limited attention spans in the time of streaming internet content and nonexistent buffer times. 

From a filmmaking perspective, short films are quite doable, certainly much more than a feature film. Short films cost (far) less to produce, they’re easier to distribute, and many film festivals leave plenty of room for showcasing short films. 

It’s no surprise then that young filmmakers are often drawn to the short film format as a starting point. Meanwhile, some filmmakers continue to make impressive short films throughout their careers, perfecting their own style and creating fantastic content that only takes up a few minutes of your time. 

Even the Oscars continue to have short film categories for both live-action and animation. A win in one of these categories can easily lead to much bigger opportunities in the entertainment industry, from commercial work to fully-fledged feature films. 

But if you’re in the process of working out your own short film, it can be all too easy to get lost in the weeds. You’ll need a script, a pool of actors, the appropriate gear, sets, permits, and a tight schedule that will make sure everything gets wrapped up in time. 

We won’t be able to walk you through each and every stage of the process, but we can help you work out your short film structure template around which you can base the entirety of your short. 

To help us out we called on two professional short film directors from Germany, a country with a long history of innovative film work. 

Max Paschke and Maik Schuster are a directing duo who have established themselves as powerhouse creatives in a highly competitive field. 

Max Paschke and Maik Schuster
Directors Max Paschke and Maik Schuster’s short film has sent shockwaves through the industry.

Both are members of the film collective I AM HERE, based in Germany, their short film ‘WALLS’ became a Vimeo staff pick and led to the duo being asked to work on a Nike campaign titled ‘Don’t Run. Race.’ 

Paschke and Schuster have continued to work together on music videos as well as their own film projects. Fortunately, they found some time to speak with LNGFRM about their own process for creating impactful short films and offer tips to budding filmmakers. 

So grab a legal pad and your favorite pen and get ready for some insights that can take your own work from good to great. 

Roll sound … and … ACTION! 

Adapting traditional structure to short-form content 

If you’ve been doing online research about screenwriting, most of the resources you’ve come across probably focus on rules for writing feature films. 

Screenplay structure for features has been dissected and examined many times over, but only a few of those traditional rules apply to short films. 

Yes, even the smallest story can be adapted to a three-act structure, but in a short film, you’ll have far less room to develop each element of the story. 

As a general rule, try to use the first 1/3rd of the script to set up your characters and your plot. The second 1/3rd should present your characters with some challenges and bring them to their lowest point. The last act brings the story to its climax and resolution. 

However, your story may require that you tweak or break the rules a bit to deliver an enjoyable viewing experience.   

The audience needs to understand characters quickly, from their personality quirks to their ultimate motivations and ambitions. 

In just a few minutes, you’ll need to provide a compelling story with a satisfying conclusion. 

How to achieve this is up to you, but your ultimate boss should be the story itself. What are the most interesting aspects? Who are the most interesting characters? short film structure template

Schuster and Paschke told us that the three-act structure is important, but it’s not always the end-all-be-all. 

“The three-act structure is, of course, a great base for a story and it works well, but we always try to bring in our own language, our own rhythm. It also really depends on the story that we want to tell. Elevating that story to an artful, abstract, or even poetic level within real and authentic moments helps to define that and set the tone for our films.” 

If you’re having trouble deciding on the structure for your project, try multiple drafts that use different structures. Let friends read each version and take their feedback to heart. 

Knowing yourself and finding your audience

Whether they want to admit it or not, all amateur filmmakers want their work to find its audience. But trying to come up with a short film idea based solely on how you think audiences will respond is bound to be a nightmare. 

Instead, it’s key to ask yourself what your style is. What’s going to distinguish your work from the rest? How can the visuals, performances, and music all contribute to the stories you’re trying to tell? 

The directing duo explained that knowing yourself as a filmmaker is really the first step to any project. Without that sense of focus and vision, things will become much more difficult. 

“Whatever script you write – there is an audience for it. If you want to talk to certain people there are things to consider in terms of topic, length, format, etc. but I think more than understanding your audience you should understand yourself as a director and find your voice, your style, your structure to tell the stories you want to tell. The people who like it will follow you because they dig the way you make films and not because you’re following a certain structure that’s common in short films or online content.” 

Anyone can learn to mimic the styles of other established filmmakers and follow current trends, but the road to success is a bit smoother for filmmakers who find their own way of doing things. 

Your work will stand out more and audiences may even be able to identify your work without seeing the credits. 

As for finding your audience, directors with a long list of credits have it easier. They can simply take a look at the demographics of who goes to see their films. 

A young filmmaker can really only guess who will appreciate their work. If you find yourself in this situation, sit down and ask yourself who you’d like your audience to be. How accessible are your movies? 

The general rule is that mainstream audiences tend to enjoy simple, universal human stories with happy endings, while niche arthouse audiences usually lean more toward complex storylines with creative visuals. 

Each of these kinds of audiences has its own benefits and drawbacks. There’s also a chance that you’ll find an audience you didn’t expect. 

Regardless of who comes to see your movie, taking note of how things play out will give you a better grasp of what makes your work special.  

The hardest part is starting 

Whether this is your first script or you’re an experienced screenwriter, it can be extremely difficult to get started on your new project. 

Brainstorming ideas and visualizing the end product is easy and exciting, but actually sitting down to a blank page can be more than a little intimidating. 

Many Hollywood screenwriters have even tried to portray the stress and anxiety of beginning a screenplay in movies like Adaptation, Paris When it Sizzles, and Seven Psychopaths. 

Overcoming this kind of writer’s block is a complex subject, but directors Paschke and Schuster like to circumvent the problem by nailing down the whole story long before digging into the script. 

This helps them dodge roadblocks, but they also like to stay open to new ideas and edits, which have the potential to change the feel of the finished work. 

“As soon as you have the story in your mind, the writing process just flows, but getting to that point is the most challenging part. What we also discovered was that we tend to title our films as one of the last steps.” 

Even as a director, you’ll need to accept that filmmaking is collaborative, and a project may change quite a lot by the time it’s finished. 

It may be painful at times, but stay open to criticism and suggestions. You’ll learn more about yourself, the people you’re working with, and, most importantly, you’ll learn a lot more about the project itself and how it should be filmed. 

Capturing attention 

Like it or not, audiences’ attention spans are shorter now than they ever have been. There used to be a tried-and-true screenwriting principle: get the audience hooked in the first ten pages. 

Now, to compensate for changing trends in entertainment, the rule has been tweaked slightly: get the audience hooked in the first five seconds.

In certain cases, the window might be even smaller than that.

Your short needs to have an impact on the viewer very early on. You don’t need to give everything away all at once, but you do need to make those first few moments count. 

“Make sure to open in a way that is significant for this film. The first 30 seconds need to have character, something special. That can be anything from a stunning portrait shot of the protagonist in a crazy location, an intimate voice message, or an action-packed scene. Make it special and make people want to know more. Don’t give away too much right in the beginning.”

Tease your characters and their inner wants and desires. Audiences love to see a character get put to the test. If you can hold the audience’s attention until the very end, they’ll be much more interested in the ending. 

What’s the theme?

What are the themes you want to be present in your short? This may seem like the kind of big, slightly pretentious question that film majors ask themselves while sipping chamomile tea in a fancy cafe, but it’s important nonetheless. 

Every film, whether it’s a short or a full feature, says something to its audience, even if the filmmaker didn’t intend it. 

This is why it’s so important to take control of what your film is saying. It doesn’t have to have a specific message, per se, but it should certainly be about something. 

short film structure template

When searching for your theme or themes, it may be easiest to start with your characters and go from there. What do they want? What are they struggling with right now? 

Themes can stay pretty broad, so yours may be something as abstract as loneliness, ambition, or equality. 

If you’re having a hard time deciding on what exactly the themes of your short are, then it may be time to take several steps back from the script. 

Ask yourself what the story is, in its most basic form. From this perspective, you should have a much better idea of what the core of the story looks like, and therefore what it’s really about. 

Paschke and Schuster take great care when deciding what the theme of a specific piece should be. In fact, the I AM HERE collective was formed around a collection of themes and topics that are immediately relevant to modern life, especially here in the West. 

“There’s not just one message within our work, but I think a lot of what we do tries to make people aware, aware of social contexts, aware of their personal surroundings, and aware of the places and people they don’t normally see.” 

This focus is apparent in their short WALLS, which utilizes numerous physical and psychological manifestations of barriers and social separation. 

Simple imagery gives way to much larger ideas, which is an arc shared by some of the most impressive feature films of our time. 

Once again, this speaks to one of the most important considerations you should have when writing and creating your short: knowing what matters and what the audience should care about. 

In the end, that focus is what will keep your structure solid and make your short memorable.

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