So you want to make a short film? Here’s some advice for developing your story into a treatment. With a clear sense of your characters and the conflict in your story, you’ll be much better prepared to write your screenplay.
Developing your idea
Coming up with an idea can be one of the most difficult stages in the film production process. Remember that ideas don’t just appear from nowhere. You need to watch films and experiment with technical equipment. Since film production can be such a long and difficult process, you need to decide on something that is going to sustain your interest. Make sure you also settle on an idea that is achievable. Limiting the number of characters and locations is a good way to reduce the complexity of your film. After all, there are a bunch of terrific films that occur in a single location, such as Lifeboat, Buried, Phone Booth and Devil. Recognise the possibilities of the locations and actors that are available to you.
Writing a log line
A log line is a one sentence summary of what happens in your film. Developing a log line for your short film is a useful activity because it helps you capture the essence of your film. If you can’t express your idea in a sentence then it’s likely that you haven’t decided what your film is about.
Your log line can help sell the film to actors or crew who might want to be involved. People are far more likely to give you their time and expertise if you can convince them it’s going to be worthwhile.
The log line should give a clear sense of your protagonist and the conflict in the film without giving away the ending. Your log line is the bait to convince people that your film is a good idea. You can tell them more about the plot once they’ve taken the hook. Log lines are often referred to as elevator pitches. You bump into a film producer in an elevator who asks you about your latest film. You’ve only got a few seconds to sell it so you’d better make every word count.
Here’s what you should include in your log line:
Characters. Who is the protagonist in your film? What makes them interesting or intriguing?
Conflict. What is the protagonist trying to achieve? What obstacles are they trying to overcome? Who is trying to stop them? What are the stakes?
Climax. Hint at the drama your film is building towards.
Here are some examples:
• A single-minded CIA operative relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty).
• In a dystopian future, a young girl is forced to fight to the death by a ruthless government (The Hunger Games).
• Battling against drugs and violence on the streets of Los Angeles, two young police officers risk their lives when they oppose a Mexican drug cartel (End of Watch).
• Riddled with bullets and left for dead, a former spy is pursued by assassins while he struggles to remember who he is (The Bourne Identity).
A log line can run for a few sentences but stop if you find yourself getting bogged down in story details. Keep it brief and compelling.
Developing a story question
Once you’ve come up with an idea, it’s time to clarify the concept by developing a story question. A story question helps to explain the central conflict in your narrative. Defining the story question follows on logically from writing your log line. After writing your log line, you should have a clear sense of the conflict in your story. What is the goal that your protagonist is trying to achieve?
• Zero Dark Thirty. Will Maya manage to track down Osama Bin Laden?
• The Hunger Games. Will Katniss survive The Hunger Games?
• End of Watch. Will Brian and Mike survive their encounter with the Mexican drug cartel and bring them to justice?
• The Bourne Identity. Can Jason Bourne outmanoeuvre the assassins and discover who he is?
According to Randy Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies, the story question should be simple, important, achievable and difficult.
The story question should be very clear to the audience. They need to understand what your protagonist is trying to achieve. If your character’s objectives are unclear then you’re going to find it very difficult to engage your audience.
The story question also needs to be important. It needs to make a difference to the life of your protagonist. If you can’t show your audience why it’s important that your character gets the girl or arrests your murderer, they simply won’t care.
Although the protagonist’s goal might be achievable, they’re going to encounter difficulties along the way that prevent them form achieving their goal. Without obstacles and difficulties, without the prospect that your protagonist might fail, there is no drama.
Carefully defining your story question can help you clarify the conflict in your story and flesh out the three act structure.
The Three Act Structure
All stories have a beginning, middle and end. When you’re making a short film, you need to consider each of these stages carefully.
The first act of your screenplay should feature a dramatic change in the life of your protagonist. This disruption creates conflict that they must deal with. Make sure the conflict upsets the balance of your protagonist’s life. It doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as murder, as long as it means something to your character, you’ve got a great starting point for drama!
The second act of your story is when your character tries to deal with the conflict. The encounter difficult obstacles or further events that complicate the situation. These obstacles should become increasingly difficult. In every scene, consider what your character wants to achieve. At the end of the scene, they might get close to achieving this before they face further obstacles and complications. How does this make them feel? What will they do next? How can you make your audience identify with your character?
Towards the end of your narrative, you need to resolve the story question that you established at the beginning. How many times have you come out of a moving thinking, “That was kind of cool but the ending sucked.” If you’ve put your audience through the wringer in your short film, they might feel cheated if you don’t give them the ending they expect. If you’re making a romantic comedy, there’s nothing wrong with having a happy ending. In most cases, this is what your audience is craving. When making a short film, consider resolving the film in a clever or unexpected way. If you’re planning a twist ending, however, always remember that you need to signpost what’s going to happen. If the ending appears out of nowhere, your audience will feel cheated.
The outline of your three act structure becomes the treatment. Writing a treatment is a great way to sort out your story and its pacing before committing yourself to a completed screenplay.
Photograph: Victor Gregory