Crashcourse: Basic Screenwriting
By: Kim Hoyos
If you’re a beginner in screenwriting for fiction short films, or going back to revise an old idea- this is the perfect place for you! It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re trying something for the first time oftentimes but we make things we want do seem hard when they’re within reach. We just have to stretch a little!
I’m going to share my top tips to remember when writing for a short film with the intention of shooting- a lot of these will be old school rules I’ve learned online and from film theory books. They won’t be all-encompassing, but they’ll be a great head start for any beginner. Try not to feel limited by them. Instead, just remember to stay organized, motivated, and most importantly….inspired.
The biggest flaw in writing short films is that there is often no conflict! Showing beautiful visuals for extended periods of time is a wonderful film technique that Sofia Coppola uses quite often. It’s a favorite of mine for sure! But, for a successful short film, one needs to make sure to write conflict. Even coming of age stories, the films most guilty of long visual scenes, have a distinct conflict that draws us to the screen!
A great way to show conflict in a film is to look at your character
1) assess their strengths/flaws
2) see how you can challenge them based off of their strengths/flaws
3) however they begin the story should be the exact opposite of how they end in the story. Think: What have they learned? Experienced?
Having a good conflict is the key to the “I don’t know how to finish this screenplay” dilemma.
One of my shorts “Aria and Owen Are Good Friends” is a silent film about the confusion when romantic feelings start to mix with a friendship. I relied on visuals for the storytelling but the conflict was written in very distinctly so that I could be able to craft the visuals BASED on that conflict.
DON’T WRITE TOO MUCH
A lot of first-time screenwriters do something you wouldn’t imagine as a negative- they write too much! Find the simplest way to write descriptions of environments. One of my professors once told me “You’re not writing poetry, you don’t have to fluff descriptions. Describe the room but write good dialogue that explains the tone. Through that, show us what’s happening.” Screenplays are meant to be guides to what should happen on screen. Think of it like directions to a science experiment, if things aren’t written clearly for someone following the directions then the end result won’t be what was written! Writing concise descriptions allows for your creativity to flourish in the dialogue. I’ve read so many screenplays for short films that are over 15 pages when the film itself is aimed to be around 5 minutes. A great rule of thumb is that every page translates to about 1 minute on screen.
TIPS FOR CHARACTERS
Characters are arguably the best part of writing short films. They’re usually the reason WHY people begin to write. Because characters and character conflict is so important, make sure to avoid a few common mistakes. For example, if two characters are in a scene, don’t have them repeat exactly what’s happening. That’ll feel to obvious the reader/viewer, with dialogue that doesn’t explain everything you’re able to work more with the conflict so that the audience gets more depth.
Example: two friends are in a fight about where to eat, but truly they’re actually tense because one friend is moving away and didn’t tell the other.
A: I don’t care if we get tacos! I’m mad you’re moving without telling me because I’m going to miss you and I feel like I don’t have your trust anymore.
Also, if you have two characters with the same personality, cut one out!! If a character isn’t directly adding to the story, they’re taking away the space of something that could and every character should be in the short for a reason.
THINK ABOUT THE SHOOT
We’d all love to have vintage cars and MUA on set but sometimes it’s just not possible. Start small there’s nothing wrong with that. Being creative with your resources is the best way to create art. Does your friend have an insane closet? Maybe ask her to be a stylist for the shoot. Do you need a classroom for a shoot? Try to hit up your local library and book a study space. By working smarter with the tools you have at your disposal, once you have more of a bandwidth in the industry you’ll be able to shine.
I shoot a lot in low light and incandescent colored light bulbs because I love the look of gels. But I also know that the rental of gels and full lighting kits is a little too much money for me at the moment. So by taking baby steps as to learning the basics of how lighting works with the equipment I have, I know I’ll be able to handle the bigger stuff later on.
MOST IMPORTANT TIP:
Write whatever the heck you want! I’ve faced so many challenges as a young Latina filmmaker. Often, I’m one of the only women in my film classes and almost always the only Latinx person. It’s so intimidating. It took a lot of me to finally find confidence but now I realize that what I write is so valid and so important.
The film industry is run by straight, upper class, white males. Because of my identity, I’m already an outlier. Sometimes, I’d present ideas for my class to high praises from professors but mixed mumbles from male classmates. It’s important to write the work you feel is important and to tell the story you want to tell. No one can copy your perspective. I’ve independently directed, written, edited, and produced 7 short films, 4 webseries, 2 documentaries, and countless social media clips. I’m also the founder of this website providing resources for others. I do what I love.
Create what you love and the rest will come along- happy writing!