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The Short Film Formula

You’ve got a killer idea. It came to you while you were taking a bath and you rushed to download Final Draft (other screenwriting softwares are available), and now here you are: facing the blank page, ready to unleash your genius. But easy there, tiger. Take a breath. Let me run something by you. Then, and only then, may you go ahead and ignore me anyway.

Short film scripts are weird. Condensing concepts into fifteen pages is a challenge. Fear not: I’m about to give you a secret formula to get the job done efficiently. Oh, you don’t like formulas? You’re not a fan of structure? Then look away now.

THE SHORT FILM FORMULA:

  • Your character must want something.
  • Your character must make three attempts to get whatever it is they want.
  • The first attempt should be the easiest—one that requires the least amount of effort and ingenuity—and it should result in failure.
  • The second attempt should see the character exert more effort and harness more brain power to reach the promised land. But they should FAIL, once again.
  • Gearing up for their third and final attempt, the protagonist should summon renewed fire from within. They should try their absolute best, going to the ends of the earth if need be, to achieve their goal. They’re all in, to coin the poker dictionary.
  • This third attempt should result in SUCCESS or FAILURE.

And that’s when your mastery kicks in. The outcome itself is immaterial; it’s all about what the protagonist learned from the experience.

Okay, theory over. You want an example? Ugh. Fine.

LITTLE JIMMY wants ten dollars from his DAD to buy some sweets. His first attempt (the easiest one to perform) is to ask his dad for the money. He thought his dad might be inclined to say yes because he just got a promotion at work. But no! Little Jimmy’s dad says NO! Attempt number one is an EPIC FAIL!

Undeterred, Little Jimmy decides to raise the stakes, embarking on his second attempt. He sneaks up to his parent’s room in the dead of night to steal his dad’s wallet. But when the lights go on, courtesy of his mother, who is a light sleeper (of course, she is), Little Jimmy is busted. EPIC FAIL number two.

Little Jimmy’s grounded now. He’s stuck in his bedroom and can’t see any friends for one whole week because of his misdemeanour. But he still wants the ten dollars. And now we reveal the real reason why: he wants to buy some chocolate for his first crush, Olympia. With the stakes feeling paralysingly high in his infantile mind, Little Jimmy resolves to try and get the money one last time.

Little Jimmy hatches a plan: he’ll break out of his bedroom, swipe his dad’s car keys, get into said car and open its glove compartment. There, he knows he’ll find a wad of cash his dad always keeps on hand for toll roads. Now you’ve got a choice about what the ending could look like. Pick your poison:

SUCCESS!

  • Little Jimmy pulled it off. He executed his little plan to perfection and returned to his room with a stack of cash. His parents are none the wiser!
  • But what does success look like? Does it taste as sweet as he thought it would? Or does he have regrets? Does he unearth the real reason behind his dad’s reluctance to give him ten dollars? And if so, does that change Little Jimmy’s stance?
  • So, even though Little Jimmy got what he wanted, success might look and feel different than what he expected. And that’s because we start to tap into something much greater than “wants.” NEEDS. More on that later.

FAILURE!

  • Little Jimmy FAILS. He got caught red-handed!
  • When Little Jimmy goes to school the following week and comes clean to Olympia about his failed act of chivalry, she might tell him she doesn’t even like sweets, but she does like him for who he is, regardless of what sweets he possesses! She might even go as far as saying he’s cute and has a super cool personality. Little Jimmy might not have gotten what he wanted, but he got what he needed – that sweet validation for who he is.

The ending could play out ten different ways, but suffice is to say: SUCCESS OR FAILURE is just the beginning.

Keep writing,

Screenplay Report.