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A Step-By-Step Guide for Writing A Short Film

Short screenplays are developed for multiple reasons. Many ideas can spring from those reasons, especially if you want to use a short film as a calling card to showcase your talent. However, there are limits to what you can accomplish when creating a short story. There's a particular structure that is designed specifically for writing a short-form script.

Most beginners are not familiar with the format, so their screenplay can become a bit weighty. So, we'll take a look at the step-by-step process of writing a script for a short film.

A Step-by-Step Guide for Writing a Short Film

But before we jump into the step-by-step process of writing a script for a short film, it is vital to learn exactly what's a short film.

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What is a short film?

According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, a short film is defined as an original motion picture with a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. Of course, this run-time varies; the Sundance Film Festival considers 50 minutes or less a short film. So, the run time isn't etched in stone.

A short film can be live-action, animated, or computer-generated. Shorts have a clear focus on one primary objective which has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Celtx Scriptwriting software for storytellers

Although a short can technically be as long as 50 minutes, most film festival programmers concede that the ideal length for a narrative short film should be no more than 10 minutes. Even so, narrative shorts between 15-20 minutes can still be viable.

If you're stretching for a 20-minute short or longer, your film has to have fantastic production value and an immensely intriguing story that keeps the audience engaged. Having recognizable talent in the short may also persuade festival programmers. However, that is not necessary.

It's all about a captivating story.

What's the length of a short screenplay?

When writing a short script, keep in mind the golden rule—one page equals roughly one minute of screen time. If your short is 15 minutes long, you'll want a screenplay that's 15 pages or less.

Obviously, when writing a short film, you'll have to set up the narrative quickly, establish your character(s), and create the protagonist's end goal almost immediately from the time you put pen to paper.

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What's the purpose of a short film?

Short films are generally used as an opportunity to hone your skills, showcase your talent, and/or secure funding for future projects.

Traditionally, shorts can potentially be used as a "stepping stone" to bigger and better projects. For instance, the short film "Alive in Joburg," created by Neill Blomkamp, garnered attention, which led to the dystopian sci-fi film "District 9," which he co-wrote with his wife, Terri Tatchell, and was produced by Peter Jackson. "District 9" went on to receive widespread critical acclaim and box office success.

There are plenty of other benefits for creating a short film. If you want to dive a little deeper into the potential rewards of creating a short, check out my blog article "10 Reasons Why You Should Make a Short Film."

Now that you're all caught up on exactly what a short film is. Let's take a look at the process of writing a short film. By taking the proper steps during the writing process, it will assist you in creating a compelling story that can potentially garner the attention of industry insiders such as managers, agents, development executives, and production companies.

Here are five steps for writing a short film screenplay:

Choose a Concept

The initial idea is the most crucial part of the writing process. Choosing the right idea has the most significant impact on whether your film would be a success or not.

It's best if you think of an idea that you can create with minimal locations, cast, props, wardrobe, and set design.

You should focus on what makes a concept fascinating enough to appeal to mass audiences or industry insiders.

The Idea by Erik Bork

The book "The Idea," written by Emmy & Golden Globe winner, Erik Bork, focuses on laying out key elements in a story's premise that work and are worth investing time and energy in.

The "Seven Elements of a Viable Story" in "The Idea" form an acronym for PROBLEM.

  • Punishing

  • Relatable

  • Original

  • Believable

  • Life-altering

  • Entertaining

  • Meaningful

Bork has created a concise and informative checklist for aspiring writers to make sure their ideas are ready for the screenwriting process.

Write the Logline

A logline is a one or two-sentence summary of your screenplay's critical dramatic narrative.

A logline must contain the following:

  • the protagonist

  • their end goal

  • the antagonist/antagonistic force


  • A risk-averse cop-in-training plan on marrying the girl of his dreams, but first must accompany his overprotective future brother-in-law, a tough-as-nails police officer, on a ride-along.

  • With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife and wreak vengeance upon a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Here's a fill-in-the-blank template for a movie logline:

When [protagonist], a [adjective] [occupation], discovers [inciting incident], they must [goal] before [obstacle] happens. But when [complicating factor], they are forced to [new goal] and [consequences]. With the help of [ally], they must [climax] in order to [resolution].

Celtx story development tools for storytellers

Outline Your Idea

A script outline helps you to stay focused and organized while you're developing your story idea. An outline allows you to play out the story in a logically structured sequence. It prepares you to write proficiently when the time comes to get your idea on paper.

Start with creating a beat sheet for your story, which is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire story.

Write the Script

Once you've chosen the concept and outlined the idea, write a 10-15 pages long screenplay. Make sure your short script includes these five stages:

  • Ordinary Word – Begin the story with a glimpse of your protagonist's everyday life.

  • Inciting Incident – Create an incident that will instill a clear goal for your protagonist.

  • Point of No Return – Give your protagonist an obstacle to confront.

  • Climax – Create a climactic scene the protagonist has to resolve.

  • Aftermath – Create a final resolution to end the story.

Celtx is a great screenwriting software you can use for the proper formatting of your screenplay.

Celtx Scriptwriting software for storytellers


I'm sure you've heard this phrase before "Writing is Rewriting." Whether they're professional or emerging, most screenwriters know that their first draft is their "vomit draft." You're just getting the story out of your system and onto the page.

No first draft ever goes straight into production.

Now the real writing begins.

Most professional screenwriters have a support system such as managers, agents, and development executives to help them analyze the script and get feedback.

A novice screenwriter does not have that support system, so you have to refer to books like "Rewrite" written by Paul Chitlik, as a reference guide.

Rewrite by Paul Chitlik

The "Rewrite" is a practical guide to assist you with getting through the next draft of your script. It gives you easy-to-follow steps and explains the reasoning behind each one.

The book guides you through: the character arcs, the central character's motivation and conflict, the antagonist, story structure, succinct action lines, cutting your page count, and so much more.

If you apply this process to your screenplay, it will increase the quality of your screenwriting.

Outside of relying on your gut for the rewrite, you can also get feedback on your screenplay from reputable Script Coverage companies that can provide analytical notes on your script.

Script Reader Pro: Script Coverage

For more information on script coverage, check out my blog article "A Guide for Professional Script Coverage."

Before you send your screenplay for coverage services, you want to make sure that your script is as close to being polish as possible. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when analyzing your short screenplay:

  • Is the main character adequately identified?

  • What is your main character's end goal?

  • What would happen if the main character fails?

  • Is the main character's goal achievable in a short story?

  • Is your main character actively pursuing this goal throughout the film?

  • What is the conflict?

  • Can the main character believably achieve their goal by the end of the film?

Grammarly Writing Support

Final thoughts…

So, there you have it – a quick and easy 5-step process for writing a short film. Let's recap the steps:

  • You've learned what a short film is.

  • You've learned what the proper length for a short screenplay is.

  • You've learned the purpose of a short film.

  • You've learned how to choose a concept.

  • You've learned how to write a logline.

  • You've learned how to outline your script.

  • You've learned how to write a short screenplay.

  • And, you've learned how to approach a rewrite.

Say Hello to Canva's Magic Write

An excellent exercise for you would be to brainstorm ideas and create an outline for your short screenplay.

Remember, this is not a pointless exercise. Preparing for the writing process begins at the conception stage. This exercise would be one of the first steps towards figuring out your short film's story premise.

Good luck!

Oh, and let me know in the comments how this exercise works out for your project.

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Having equipped yourself with insights for successfully writing a short film, it's time to embark on your screenwriting journey.

If you're seeking a clearer understanding about the role of a screenwriter, I invite you to accompany me on YouTube. I share eight essential tasks the screenwriter must complete and deliver to the production company.

Tips Are Appreciated


Of course, Diversity in Cinema Academy has many other resources that I love to share with you, but I wanted to keep this blog strictly about writing a short film.

If I had to pick two resources I couldn't live without for writing my short screenplay, it would be these two tools.

Aside from the tools above, I also use many other resources to help me prep for a movie production. Some of them are FREE and some are paid.

You can check out some of the other resources that I love using on Diversity in Cinema Academy's resources page. You can view all of the resources for Filmmakers, Content Creators and Screenwriters from the links provided.

From filmmaking tools, to content creation tools, to screenwriting tools... they all can be found in the tools section of Diversity in Cinema Academy's website. I highly recommend that you check out our tools store! :)

If you like it, please help me to share the resources link with a friend. I would really appreciate it!

Okay, that's all for now. I hope that you have found the information I provided helpful!

Enough information, start conceptualizing!



Diversity in Cinema Academy is an online digital media company that primarily uses web-based applications, such as an interactive website and social media platforms, to offer aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters an entertaining and educational place to interact with each other and professional filmmakers.


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