How to set up a short film?

If this is not your first week at screenwriting, you possibly heard of the three-act structure, since we hate changes, this method is used since ancient Greece. It doesn’t matter how revolutionary you are, you can’t shake things up unless you know what you’re dealing with and the biggest share of the stories turned into movies are based on the three-act structure.

The first act is named Set up, which is the introduction of elements required to tell our story. The following act is the Confrontation, which is the complication of the core problem of the story, the uprising challenges our hero must fight against in order to achieve his goal. Resolution is how the third act is called, since it is when our problem commonly gets solved. Most manuals will suggest that you split your film, timewise, into these three acts, the first occupying 1/4 of your film, the second act 1/2 and the third act filling the last 1/4. Yet, i won’t bullshit you with a post on the three-act structure, if you don’t know what we’re talking about this far, just google it.

If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

– Billy Wilder

Here’s the thing, the first act is the one you must be more careful about, it’s like preparing for a camping trip, whenever you’re in the woods, if you forgot to pack your sleeping bag, you gonna spend your night at the ground. This means that the first act is your toolbox and it is over when you close it. It’s the place you’ll introduce all your resources, characters, starting points which will develop further along the road. Some films require a longer introduction, since they have much more information to deliver, you’ll commonly find it at science fictions, like Inception. A good screenplay doesn’t mean that you’ll follow the 1/4 recipe for the set up, but that you won’t miss to introduce a thing.

Commonly the first act ends whenever our main character starts seeking for his GOAL, which means the LIFE-CHANGING EVENT was already introduced. Still you can’t waste too much of your time on introduction. We don’t go to a party expecting to handshake a bunch of new people, we want those drunk girls to jump at the pool. So a good introduction is also moved with CONFLICT. I’ll use Spider as an example again, it’s like the third time we’re using it, but i’ll post the video anyway in case you haven’t seen it.

We see our main character, the toy spider, for the first time at the 3-minute mark, that’s 1/3 of the film. It does nothing to the story until the 6-minute mark. That’s 2/3 of the film. So you have 3 minutes to exploit your EVENT. The point is that the movie starts with conflict, the couple fighting at the car and soon our main character acquires a goal: reconcile with his girl. Even though you’re not dropping your bombs in the first key minutes, you’re driving us through with something to hold on. Even if you play slowly, you gotta play.

If you use a 10 minute short film as parameter, your first act according to a formula should have 2½ minutes. You can’t get a noodles done in that time. Nevertheless, i’ve always recommend you to start your short film with the LIFE-CHANGING EVENT, because you must have something explosive in the beginning to keep your viewer attached, most feature films use a sequence to introduce to your character activity, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark and that rolling boulder or Drive and the first heist which doesn’t have much to the whole story. Still, both scenes show what your main character is all about. As a short filmmaker, you don’t have this much runtime to spare, so you better get going with something that will also move your main plot.

The more CHARACTER DRIVEN is your story, longest must be your first act. Characters to be introduced in some sort of depth must be done slowly, you can’t simply drop everything at your viewer. For example, a short film in which the daughter accidentally kills her mother and must decide what to do with her body, if you start up with the LIFE CHANGING EVENT itself, we won’t know why will the daughter take the decisions she will take over the dead body. So you must take a step back, in general, to realize when you should take a longer time introducing your characters, you start your story at the LIFE CHANGING EVENT and if the story’s calls doesn’t flow naturally, you’ll realize there’s something else to introduce. Just remember to ALWAYS have conflict moving your narrative, even before you institute your main plot point.

Keep in mind as well that you must take your time, because whenever your second act begins, there’s no way back, still you must be concise, this is a short film after all. If you want to estabilish a parameter for your first works, you can’t bypass 2/3 of your film in the first act, otherwise the following events will run in such a rush it will feel hasty.

The surprise, the accident, these are factors you must identify at your life changing event, because when you spend much time developing your introduction, it might work as climax as well. Spider is like that, but if you use my example, possibly an accident would lead to the mother’s death, this is our life changing event but you could also end your story right after it, let’s pretend that our daughter character took a decision over dumping her mother’s body that is surprising, this means that it goes against to the expectatins raised in the earlier character development, perhaps she chops her mother’s body and feed the cats with the parts, but before they had a good relationship, although they were discussing about the amount of cats her mom raised in her house as she has another candidate to the club.

Yes, this is like skipping the second act, ain’t cheating, it works and might save you some time length.


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