Ten rules for writing a successful short script

by Linda Cowgill

  1. Know who you’re making your film for. If it’s for yourself, that’s who you
    have to satisfy. If you’re making it as an entry into the industry, your film needs to work dramatically as well as technically. Competition is stiff.
  2. The longer the story, the better the film has to be. Length comes down to
    what the story dictates. But if a film is over 15 minutes it really has to be great to keep people watching.
  3. Write the script you can produce. Don’t write a script with production values you can’t effectively achieve.
  4. The best ideas are simple. Focus on one main conflict, develop and explore it in surprising ways.
  5. Set your film up in the first 60 seconds. If you’re writing a ten minute (10 page) movie, you can’t take the first 5 pages to introduce your characters before getting to your conflict. Establish your conflict as soon as possible.
  6. Make sure conflict escalates. Know what your character wants (the goal) and what’s preventing him from getting it (the obstacle), and make sure your audience understands it, too.
  7. Try to develop the conflict in one main incident as the set piece of your project. Many great short films develop the conflict in one incident to great effect, exploring character in ways feature films rarely do because they rely more heavily on plot.
  8. If your film is less than 5 minutes, one type of conflict might be sufficient to satisfy your audience. But if your film is over 5 minutes, you’re going to need to various obstacles or complications for your hero to face.
  9. Just because your film is short doesn’t mean you can’t have an effective mid-point and reversal. Anything that keeps your audience from guessing your ending is an asset.
  10. Make sure your ending is the best thing about your great film. Your pay off is what you’re leaving the audience with and it’s how they’re going to remember you.

About the Author:

Linda Cowgill is a screen and television writer who teaches at Loyola Marymount University and the Los Angeles Film School. Her feature film, “Opposing Force,” was released by Orion Pictures in 1986. She has written for such shows as “Quincy,” “The Young Riders” and “Life Goes On,” for which she won a Genesis Award. Most recently, she optioned her script “Honor Student” to World International Network. She received her MFA from UCLA where she won a Jim Morrison Award for best short film. Ms. Cowgill is the author of the popular film school textbook Writing Short Films and Secrets of Screenplay Structure.