View Full Version : The Basic Structure of a Short

Queen Uhuru
12-15-2004, 04:40 PM
I have never tried to write a "short" screenplay but I see competitions for them and the subject comes up from time to time on various messageboards. And now I'd like to give it a whirl.

So, I would like to know if anyone can point me to a basic primer or description of the elements of a short screenplay. I do understand that some of the same basics for regular-length screenplays do apply but the structure and pacing has to be different just because the page number is about 1/4 the size of a normal screenplay.

Any opinions or advice or helpful links?

Deus Ex Machine
12-15-2004, 06:19 PM
The structure of a short is the same as that of a feature.

TwoBrad Bradley
12-15-2004, 09:23 PM
Generally, the shorter the screenplay, the smaller Act II (assuming Act II is middle of three acts) is in relation to the other two acts. Assuming that "normal" can be 25% - 50% - 25%.

Do the Act I setup.
Arrive at the end of Act II reversal (plot point, lost point, whatever you call it) must faster.
Act III - resolution.

A short can work with (just examples):
Act I - 50%
Act II - 15%
Act III - 35%


Act I - 60%
Act II - 1%
Act III - 39%

12-16-2004, 12:23 AM
For the first time in history I'm going to disgaree with Deus.

A short, like a feature, of course must have a beginning, middle, and end, but I do think that there are structural differences, depending on the length you are targeting.

For roughly thirty pages - I would probably use a two act structure, like a TV show.

For anything less I would look to model my short script after a one act play, especially in terms of the beats and the dramatic payoffs.

If the short is going to be more visual in nature and in the five minute range, then perhaps just storyboarding it would be enough.

Since you said "write" though I would assume this is for writerly purposes.

imho - I do think the approach to the short is likely to be different than that of a feature, but at the end of the day, whatever works best for you is the way to go.

12-16-2004, 01:53 AM
"The structure of a short is the same as that of a feature." ~ Deus
Use smaller brads, (use Acco's #2 solid brass fasteners for very short screenplays).

Deus Ex Machine
12-16-2004, 12:36 PM
I highly recommend Writing Short Scripts by William H. Phillips. When I had to make a short film in film school I found it to be very helpful.

Other useful books on short films:

The Ultimate Filmmakers Guide to Short Films
by: Kim Adelman |

Short Films 101
by: Frederick Levy

Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect
by: Claudia H. Johnson

Writing Short Films
by: Linda Cowgill

Making a Winning Short
by: Edmond Levy


12-16-2004, 05:13 PM
JimJimGrande... your suggestion to use a one act play for shorts comprising 30 or less pages offers an excellent framework in which to build a theme and storyline around a solid foundation... I'm not saying other approaches are wrong, just that your suggestion is a sound one!:smokin

12-16-2004, 08:10 PM
End with a twist. I don't have that on anybody's authority but my own, though.

12-18-2004, 03:55 AM
I think what TwoBrad said is pretty good basic advice. The best shorts I've seen are more or less set ups & punch lines - Act 1 & Act 3 without much Act 2. Frederick Levy (saw him a couple of days ago) has a book about short films, and he says make 'em 10 minutes or less. The best ones I've seen were about that length. I'd watch a bunch of shorts and see what works and figure out why... then apply that to your script.

- Bill

Manilow in Blue
12-19-2004, 06:19 PM
Personally, 50% or 60% of a short being used for set-up would bore the freeking hell out of me.

How complicated of a story are you going to tell in less than 30 minutes that you need to spend half your time setting the story up?

Get to the point before the audience thinks you don't know what you are doing.

12-19-2004, 07:21 PM
30 minutes? That's way too long. I think I've only seen one or two films that long in all of the festivals I've gone to. Most are about 10 minutes - and what you end up with is a set up and a punch line.

I have reviews of all of the shorts I saw at the Raindance Festival on my website's message boards. I think I put in the running time, too - there were lots of 3 minutes and 6 minutes, most were around 10 (or 12) and very few were longer than that.

Oh, and there was an entire competition for 30 second short films. The winner was a guy who took my class.

I'd say - watch a zillion shorts. Does Trigger Street still have shorts online?

- Bill

Adam Isaac
12-19-2004, 08:17 PM

Shorts are awesome. I rarely judge any short harsely. Different animal but still relevant. There's a (*searching for right word*) quality in presenting-not a story-but a concise purpose at being able to get a reaction from the audience.

My favorite shorts are 'plot-less', but they either get me thinking(about the 'point') for a moment after it ends, or it might make me laugh or cringe. Guess what my point is, is shorts strike me as a genius method to mastering the same concepts in our own work.

I fell very strong about the 'Story' aspect of films. Bob McKee's got a understanding of story, but again....we all complicate things as they seem to get more complicated. It can be a 'science' but it isn't science. All these guys will help you(they did me). There's so many things that into it, but it still is an art.

Story can start as simple as being a trip to the gas station and then the store not having your Cigarette brand, you choose another brand, go to pay, and you forgot your ID. Head back to the car, damn...locked your keys in your car(now you really need a cig)......etc. Pos-Neg-Pos-Neg-Neg-Pos, all to do this one thing....shoot, it really does happen like that in the really real World too.

12-20-2004, 09:36 AM
30 minutes? That's way too long. I think I've only seen one or two films that long in all of the festivals I've gone to. Most are about 10 minutes
I'm not a filmmaker but I also wondered about length in terms of writing. So, if there is a competition for scripts for shorts, one should not submit more than 10 pages or does the one page per minute rule still work for shorts?

12-20-2004, 09:56 AM
Yes, one minute per page would still be the rule.

I wouldn't be surprised if most writing competitions for shorts allowed up to 30 pages. However, if I were writing a short I wanted produced, I'd make it under 10 minutes.

In a short, there isn't room for as many interesting situations that the audience can get caught up in as in a feature script, so if you're not careful, shorts tend to get boring and repetitive very quickly. .

12-20-2004, 09:57 AM
How complicated of a story can you tell in 30 minutes?

I don't think creating an intricate plot line that is overtly complicated is the objective! I think the objective is to tell a well crafted story that conveys , if possible, a message about ourselves/environment/or world in some other way.

As to a response to the quote, I would say ask Rod Serling, if he wasn't dead, a master of the thirty minute story!

But you can still learn from him every night on the Sci-Fi Channel!:smokin