Andrew Horng, Writer/Director: Nowadays, there are competitions out there that challenge you to make a short film over the course of just one weekend. They’re a really fun way to gain experience, network, and create a film quickly. Very quickly.
Last year, I entered my first “timed” competition, and the short film I wrote placed 1st out of 58 total films. I met Marcia Gay Harden, I got into Variety, and I was even invited by my team to compete for a second and third time, writing films that ranked among the very best. Today, I’m gonna teach you what I’ve learned from my experiences to bypass the competition and get you into the cream of the crop.
KNOWING YOUR GENRE
The first thing you gotta know is… for these challenges, the shorts are due on Sunday, which means you really only have Friday to work on the story and deliver a script. In addition to that, the competition wants to make sure that you don’t start any earlier, so they give you a specific list of requirements on Friday that must be present in your film.
My first piece of advice is to split these requirements up. Ignore minor requirements like props or dialogue, and start with the one that matters the most: genre. Genre is going to be your compass, pointing your story in the right direction. You need to deconstruct that genre, and figure out what that genre is really all about on a sub-atomic level.
For example, we were given the fantasy genre for our second film “Crystal’s Ball.” After researching examples online, I noticed that many fantasy stories follow a similar structure. A character has some sort of pain and enters a sort of fantasy land to escape that pain. But it’s not all peaches and creme there, and the character eventually returns to the real world with a new outlook from the entire experience. And that’s what we ended up doing. We told a story about a grieving daughter that uses a crystal ball to reunite with her dead father. But their reunion is not all peaches and creme. And near the end of the film, she leaves and is a tad different from where she started.
ACTORS & LOCATIONS
After breaking down your genre into its most basic form, you should then consider the two big assets you’ll be working with: actors and location. Because time was of the essence for our films, both the actors and the locations were already set each time before the story was even conceived. But that’s actually okay since those two factors, along with an understanding of the genre, are a great launching point for brainstorming.
My first suggestion for generating ideas is to zero in on conflict. Conflict is the life blood of any story, even a short one told in just a few minutes. What might help you get in this conflict mindset is to just casually think about what a potential problem could be when you factor in both your actors and your location. And then after that, a potential solution. When you’ve come up with some possibilities, I’d suggest you start your story with the problem that excites you the most.
That being said, my second suggestion during this stage is to keep it simple. You don’t have hours to tell your story, only minutes. And you don’t have much time to write it out either. You can be more detail-oriented later in the process, but it probably won’t do you any favors to do so at the very start. What may help with simplicity is to think of your story in threes. Take a step back, look at the big picture, and try to describe your story’s beginning, middle, and end in the most simplistic way.
For example, before writing our first film “Check Mate” we had a house as our location and four actors cast already. So, zeroing in on the conflict, the problem that was the most exciting was about the house having a vacancy, and two of our actors fighting over it. Meanwhile, the other two actors became the ones who already lived there. So then, expanding that premise into threes… the two actors meet at the house in the beginning of the story… they fight over the vacancy in the middle… and then they quickly become friends and decide to room together by the end. They meet. They fight. They become friends. Simple.
“When you’ve figured out the simple beginning, middle, and end of your story, you could just jump into writing the first draft of the script. Or, what I recommend, is to take another writing step in between and write out a brief synopsis of your story in just a couple of paragraphs. By doing so, it gives you another opportunity to rewrite your story in a new format and do so quickly.”
When you’ve figured out the simple beginning, middle, and end of your story, you could just jump into writing the first draft of the script. Or, what I recommend, is to take another writing step in between and write out a brief synopsis of your story in just a couple of paragraphs. By doing so, it gives you another opportunity to rewrite your story in a new format and do so quickly.
Also, a brief synopsis is going to be a tad more detailed, so here you’re going to want to add in the “lesser” requirements from the competition. Requirements like what props to put in or what dialogue to say will be easier to plug into your story, now that you already have the “backbone” for your story figured out.
If you’re with another writer or the director at this stage, this is your chance to pitch them with your synopsis and get them on board with your story before you flesh it out in script format. Especially if you or someone else is not quite sold on the idea yet. Here, you can get feedback regarding what you need to improve on, or you can get confidence with what’s working with your story.
WRITE IT QUICKLY
With all that very loose planning done, and all your thinking power focused on what assets you have and what requirements you need to check off, you can now focus on writing your story out in script format. I use Final Draft, but really any screenwriting software out there should help you create your final version as quickly as possible.
For this last step, I’d suggest pulling up your synopsis, and then quickly writing out a script version of it that you’ll probably think is bad. Also, I would restrain yourself from making any edits to it until you’ve finished writing this bad draft. But keep in mind, even though you’ve already done a bunch of planning, this is still your very first draft of the script. It’s supposed to be rough and unpolished, so don’t beat yourself up over the quality. Just focus on converting your synopsis into a bad draft first, and then (after you’re done with that step) look at it with a critical eye and make some edits for your final draft.
EASTERSEALS DISABILITY FILM CHALLENGE
So my first and third films I did for competition were for the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, which was amazing to be a part of. Disability is very much underrepresented and misrepresented in the media, and being a part of the challenge helped to move the needle when it came to that.
The competition welcomes all filmmakers who are down with that cause and down to make something really quick. So now that I’ve given you some tips on how to write for a timed competition, I hope you’ll consider joining that one and making an impact as well.
If you want to check it out, or any of the films, please see the links in the description below. Good luck, and I’ll see you next time on Film Courage.
Award-Winning Short Films Written By Andrew T. Horng
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