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Couple of days ago I put out an ad asking for writers to send in scripts at around 3 minutes’ length. Scripts could be in any genre. Typically, I got a whole bunch of scripts that were 8 minutes and above. It’s amazing how few people actually bother to read the brief. If you wrote a 60 second script for a 30 second spot at an ad agency, you’d be shown the door, but for some reason most scriptwriters – or wannabe scriptwriters – believe that their story is so good at 8 or 9 pages or even 15, they’re convinced you drop your stupid 3 minute requirement and go big. I’m sorry, but that’s kinda stupid, if you ask me. If not bordering on arrogant.

What characterised the majority of the scripts was the lack of an IDEA.  Almost every writer jumped in with frenetic descriptions and breathless dialogue that quickly described a scene, but with no idea in sight. Whenever I paused to hunt around for an idea, all I got was ‘context’.

Short films must have an intriguing idea! In a feature you can take 5-10 minutes with your set-up, with a 10 minute short you have about 2-3 minutes and 3-4 to deliver a catalyst or inciting event. In a 3 minute film one has to follow the next in 120 seconds and the pay-off should be there in the third minute.

As a writer of a short, you are not writing a mini feature – you have to appreciate the form demands that you are succinct and singular-minded. If you can’t really say what your script is about – that’s to say, if you can’t describe the idea you are working with – your short is going to play like an anecdote from a rambling diary.

For me ‘the idea’ in a script is a lot more than a clever twist or an intellectual demonstration of ingenuity – a strong idea should be simple yet resonate with our heart.

I’m amazed at how many writers, who actually write well or even stylishly, cannot describe what their script is about. Their loglines state a set of circumstances, rather than hint at a conflict to be worked out, an ambition to be accomplished.

Make it ironic

If you want to be a writer of quality you will hopefully have understood by now the importance of irony.  Without irony, your idea, assuming you have one, will lack layering, humour, life. Without irony, your idea will lack a sense of cohesion. Because it is irony above all else that gives us a sense of a writer’s consciousness, without which a script tends to be formulaic and flat. Irony works like a mirror in a room, extending your ideas beyond their apparent frame. We all crave novelty and irony is the most effective means of creating it because it is multi-dimensional.

In the internet age, more than ever we expect the immediately exciting and sensational from everything we see. And yet having become such sophisticated readers of visual communication, we now tire quickly of dramas that trade on the very sensationalism we seem to crave in small doses – in our advertising, for instance. So we are ever more restless for both the sensational and the very opposite of sensational – the more meaningful and deeper response to what we watch. As a writer working now, your aim should be to reconcile – or perhaps fuse – the two together.

Coming from an advertising background I have learnt to appreciate the discipline of striving to produce logical and cohesive ideas that communicate clear, singular messages in a sexy and stimulating fashion.  As a result all of my short films have had strong ideas. They have clear, concise ideas which raise certain questions. You may not like them, but you are very unlikely to feel indifferently about them. And that’s surely got to be one of the main objectives of any writer – even a non-political writer should strive to provoke some kind of argument in his or her viewer, because anything less is just a passive reception of your message.

A good short should be more than a gag, or an anecdote or demonstration of visual cleverness; it should raise a question about the experience you are bringing to life. The question, What is it about? should not confine itself merely to the narrative, but rather to some precious and, possibly, highly specific knowledge about the human condition. Whatever your subject, choose an extreme and very specific situation that raises urgent questions straight away.

I would even go so far as to say a good – or great – short should leave an impression on the viewer that is equivalent to a much longer film – it should hint at stories and ideas within itself, not unlike a movie trailer, but more fully formed.

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