We asked Will Bigham, winner of On The Lot, for his thoughts on writing a winning short. Take it away, Will!
Writing is writing, whether your script is 5 pages or 205 pages (please don't let it be 205 pages). Everything you know about character, structure, tone and format in regards to writing a feature, the same rules apply when writing a short. The only difference is SCOPE. Here are a few quick tips for those of you who have a story to tell and only a few minutes to tell it.
1. Keep it simple. If you have an idea that takes place in ancient Rome, where the newly appointed Caesar must win favor of the Senate, while his sister is courting the son of their enemy's king, and in the climactic battle sequence, brother and sister fight each other over the empire they love and the man that's tearing them apart... write a feature. In a short, keep it to a hero wants something, there's an obstacle, he tries a few things to get what he wants, and he either gets it or doesn't. I know when I say it like that, it sounds boring. But take a look at any good short, and I guarantee the basic story structure is as simple as that.
2. Define your hero. If you only have 5 or 10 pages to tell a story, you can't waste much of that time getting to know your characters. Find something in your hero in which everyone can relate to, something universal. You don't have to make them a stereotype. They can be unique and different. In fact, if they're not, why write them? But we have to know who that person is on the first page of your script. And we should know who they are by the choices they make and the actions they take. If you feel like you need a voice over to tell the back story of your hero, start rewriting. Give that character an action or have them make a choice that will define who they are. The audience cares about who they are now, not who they were.
3. Start strong and end strong. Whenever I go to festivals or I'm surfing online, I know in the first ten seconds if I'm going to like a short. First impressions are everything. Do something right off the bat that grabs your audience's attention. That doesn't mean you have to have an explosion or a gun fight. It just means you have to show your audience something they weren't expecting. As I said earlier, your hero needs to be defined quickly. Why not have your hero do something unexpected. It will let your audience know who he is, and it will grab their attention right out of the gate. Also remember that last impressions are lasting. Be sure to end with some sort of emotional button. If you're doing a comedy, end on a laugh. Whatever your tone, make sure you give the audience a final impression that will keep them thinking about your short.
When coming up with ideas for your short, always keep in mind that it is a SHORT, which means it should be short. If you've ever sat through a shorts program at a festival, I'm sure you'd agree with me in saying that the shorter the short the better. When you find yourself on page 20 and you still haven't reached the inciting incident of your story, stop. The reason we write short screenplays is because we have a small but meaningful story to tell. Tell that story in as few words as possible.
Will Bigham is a writer/director, currently with a development deal at DreamWorks Pictures. Last summer, Will was voted the winner of Fox's reality show "On the Lot". Originally from Texas, Will now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.