How to Write a Short Screenplay

By David Trottier

Note: I wrote the following for junior high and high school students, but the points made may be helpful to you, too. In addition, I analyze a short script at the end of the article.

Here's all you need to write a short script of 3 minutes or more:

A character with a problem (beginning), his or her opposed action (middle), and how it ends (end).

That's it!

Well, there is a little more to it than that. Let's start with the character. Yes, there may be many characters in your script, but there will be only one central character. This character will have a goal or desire. The goal or desire will be something that the character has as the script begins, or it will be motivated by some event at the beginning of the script.

There is an old classic Italian film entitled The Bicycle Thief. It's a feature film, but it could be reduced to a 3-minute version. A poor man (Antonio) owns a bicycle and needs it to get a job, but his bicycle is stolen. Now Antonio has a goal--to find the young thief and reclaim his bicycle. That's your opening.

The body (middle) of your script will present a series of attempts to achieve the goal, but there will be opposition, probably from another character who wants the same thing or is trying to stop your central character directly or inadvertently. But obstacles of any kind can arise to block your character. The important thing is to make your character active and make sure things aren't easy for him or her. You want conflict.

In the Bicycle Thief, Antonio and his boy comb the city to find the thief. At one point, he spots the thief, and chases him into a brothel, but he doesn't catch him. Every attempt fails, and the conflict intensifies because he must provide for his family, and he can't do that without a bicycle. The pressure builds.

Generally, the central conflict of any story needs to increase in intensity or in scope or in some other way. We call this the Rising Conflict. It can be a gently rising conflict. Think of some of your favorite cartoons. Wily Coyote tries to catch Roadrunner. His first attempt fails, and in each succeeding attempt, Wily Coyote tries something different and something more daring. We know this is all leading somewhere.

It is leading to a Crisis or dark moment where everything seems lost. It's the moment where it looks like there's no way the central character will succeed. In The Bicycle Thief, Antonio finally sees that he has failed and will never get his bicycle back. They will starve.

The Crisis is followed by the Climax, which needs to be the biggest moment in your screenplay. It's usually where the central character and the main opposition character square off. I think of it as the final battle or showdown. In our 3-minute version of The Bicycle Thief, Antonio finally finds the young thief who feigns a seizure. The police don't arrest him because there is no bicycle (he's presumably sold it) and his neighbors provide a false alibi. Antonio, now totally desperate, tries to steal a bicycle himself, but he is caught. Fortunately, charges are dropped by the merciful bicycle owner. Antonio and his son trudge away, hand-in-hand, unemployed.

Dating and conflict
One of my favorite short films of my youth is The Phone Call. It's about a young man in high school who wants to call up a girl and ask her for a date. That's the goal. The opposition is the girl. Even though the girl does not directly oppose him, he sees asking her on a date as the impossible dream. Thus, the larger opposition is his own fear. Yes, this is about his own inner conflict. She represents his fear, his inner conflict. She makes it visual.

His actions consist of staring at the phone, picking it up, and putting it back down. Next, he calls. She answers, and he hangs up. Next, he calls and actually talks to her, but fails to ask her on the date. Do you see the rising conflict? And we all know this is leading somewhere. In fact, we're at the Crisis where he feels he can't ever call her again now because he failed so miserably. But he does, and that's the Climax or Showdown.

My printer and me
True story. While writing this article, my daughter asked me to take her to her flute lesson in five minutes. I needed to print out my rough draft to read during her lesson (my goal). At my first attempt, I was out of ink. At my second attempt, I was out of paper. At my third attempt, there was a paper jam. I now only had one minute left. The Crisis. I expertly unjammed the printer and finally printed my draft. A complete story!

Deadlines can help put pressure on your character and create suspense. Actually, there's an implied deadline in The Bicycle Thief.

Wanna Dance?
Some time ago, I was a guest at a junior high class. I conducted a 30-minute seminar on how to write a short movie. The students then had a day to write a script. The following script is the one I liked the best. I present it to you for two reasons: 1) It demonstrates proper format, and 2) It's a complete example, although only about two pages (rather than three). You'll have to overlook the fact that the script was written by a seventh grader with a bit of tweaking from me.

My comments to you are in bold and enclosed in brackets.

                   THE SEVENTH GRADE DANCE
                      by Mieshia Ussery

FADE IN:

INT. SCHOOL GYM - DAY

LISTA, friendly and usually nice, walks into the gym, then stops and looks over the crowd. She walks over to her smart friend ERIKA and some other girls.

[Note the two characterizations. Lista is "friendly and usually nice,' and Erika is "smart." You can do that when you introduce characters. Also, notice the weak verb "walks" is used twice. Favor specific, active verbs such as strides, sashays, tiptoes, or staggers--any of these will better help characterize Lista and/or the moment.]

                        LISTA
          Hi, you guys, have you seen Steven?

[This foreshadows her desire for Steven. In this case, the goal was set before the movie began.]

                        ERIKA
          Look over there. See Steven?
          He is dancing with... Guess Who?

                        LISTA
          That snotty Kristen.
                (looks fondly at Steven)
          It doesn't matter because Steven doesn't
          like me anyway.

[We're pretty sure that "snotty Kristen" is the main opposition character. The goal to connect with Steven is clear now. We now movie into the longer middle section.]

As the song ends, a slow song comes on.

KRISTEN, frowny faced, steps into the bathroom, leaving dreamboat STEVEN alone. Lista gawks at him. Erika notices.

                        ERIKA
          Go ahead and ask him.

                        LISTA
          What if Kristen finds out?

                        ERIKA
          Don't worry. Go ahead.

[Lista's reluctance creates tension. She's afraid of rejection. We anticipate possible conflict.]

Lista gulps and walks slowly towards Steven, looking scared.

Then he spots her and smiles. She freezes. She gulps again and walks up to him.

                        LISTA
          W-wanna dance?

                        STEVEN
          With who?

Steven looks around at other girls.

[As a writer, I think Steven's response and action are brilliant because it implies his fun-loving personality, creates more anticipation for rejection, and makes him a second opposition character (even though he's not trying to be an opposition)]

Lista looks devastated. She points to herself with a silly look on her face.

                        STEVEN
          Hey, just messin' with you.

[Relief. She has overcome an obstacle.]

Steven laughs and takes her hand. They start dancing. Finally, she smiles at Steven.

                        LISTA
          All of my feet are lefties.

                        STEVEN
          Me, too.

[And now Kristen creates the Crisis or low point.]

As Steven and Lista dance, Kristen comes out of the bathroom. She sees them dancing. She marches over to confront them.

                        KRISTEN
          Excuse me, I think you are dancing
          with my date. Go find someone else
          to dance with.

[And now for the Climax or showdown, which continues to the end.]

Lista is so surprised that she accidentally swings at Kristen and socks her in the eye.

                        LISTA
          Oops, I didn't mean that.

After this, Kristen's frowny face becomes a scowl. She starts pounding her fist into Lista's stomach.

                        BOTH GIRLS
          All of my feet are lefties.

Steven laughs and takes her hand. They start dancing. Finally, she smiles at Steven.

                        LISTA
          I hate you! Go dance with someone
          else.

While they are fighting, Lista's friend, Erika, rushes over to the fight. Everyone has stopped dancing and are watching. Steven looks amused.

[Notice the reaction shots in the above paragraph.]

                        ERIKA
          Stop it, Lista, before you get
          Yourself into trouble!

After Erika stops Lista from getting herself into trouble, Lista notices that everyone is looking at them. She looks at Steven hopefully.

                        STEVEN
          If you girls are going to fight like
          that, I might as well not like either                 one of you.

Both girls are in shock. They both sock Steven in the eye, and hug each other! Erika nods her head approvingly.

[Thus, we end with a surprise twist.]

                   --The End--

You might notice that incidental actions are not include, only important actions and descriptions. There are not any camera angles; they are seldom needed in a spec script, but on occasion can be useful. A rule-of-thumb with writing action is to only describe what the audience will see on the movie screen and hear on the soundtrack (such as sounds).

Good luck with your own script and keep writing!