Julie Marsh is a professional Story Consultant for feature films in Hollywood. She has also written for cartoons, an award-winning video game, and film. She has been the Head Writer on three award-winning short films for the 48 Hour Film Festival, each of which was written in less than 8 hours, the most recent of which was featured on Good Morning America only three weeks after its debut on YouTube.
THE SMART SCRIPT PRIMER FOR SHORT FILMS
By Julie Marsh
Shorts. There must be a million of them by now on YouTube. Despite the deluge of pet antics, never before has there been such a viable marketing tool for the creative professional. We are witnessing the birth of Guerilla Distribution and an influx of recreational filmmaking.
As someone who's worked as a writer on a number of award-winning short films and consulted on many more, I am sometimes asked for advice on story strategy.
How do you make YOUR FILM stand out as either a professional or an amateur? A terrific script is essential and will shine through the most modest production values. Even if it's a simple, one-joke wonder, you must nail the set-up and pay off to grab viewers' attention. It's also important to build viral properties into the narrative, so it has the necessary appeal to spread on the net.
The three most powerful tools I can specifically offer short film storytellers are explained at length below. They are:
1) The Rule of 3.
2) The gimmick.
3) The twist.
Story advice for shorts overlaps with feature films in a few ways that are worth mentioning: Both forms must have a solid HOOK upfront, a CHARACTER with whom the audience identifies, something at STAKE, and a story that makes SENSE logically. Like the film, the script itself should focus on the DELIVERING IMAGES that build meaning. All that is given.
As for genre, when telling a story for the short format, keep in mind that it's much easier to get laughs or a good shock, than it is to get tears.
Comedy and horror depend on surprise, and you can create surprise more efficiently than you can build the kind of pathos and emotional investment required to generate big wet tears. A notable exception might be the feel good YouTube hit:
This video has a warm, fuzzy, G-rated appeal and music video format, but nonetheless tells a whole story, without diagetic sound.
Critical to the Short format, though, are three tactics, listed above, that I have observed over the years to be so consistently effective, they should be institutionalized. Many of these tactics CAN and should be applied to narrative features, but they seem essential to the short film.
After the rules, I've included a link to short film I saw recently, "THE NEW THING," by The Whitest Kid You Know, that STILL cracks me up every time I see it. The story demonstrates all three rules hilariously, and I will explain how below.
JULIE'S SHORT PRIMER RULE #1
Use the "Rule of 3" to structure your film.
The "Rule of 3" originally comes from comedy (...or possibly from quantum physics), but it's really the basic formula for creating EXPECTATION, which is the single most important tool of the storyteller. When you master expectation, you master narrative. Any narrative.
The RULE OF 3 states: Do anything 3 times and it's funny (or terrifying).
Sure, you can create a quickie expectation and pay it off, simply by asking and answering a question. The question uses two beats: Set-up (the question) and Pay-off (the answer). Unanswered questions are GREAT for creating expectation, especially when you can avoid the answer as LONG as possible. That's the tension that drives every episode of CSI: "Who killed the victim and how do we nail the killer?"
But look what happens when you add one more beat and invoke The Rule of 3:
See, when an event or moment occurs ONCE, it pretty much lays there. It should be memorable (funny, odd, shocking, sad, stupid…but INTERESTING), so that we recall the event later. When we see the event repeated a SECOND time, we are satisfied that we have identified an EXPECTATION, a pattern for how things occur in this corner of the universe. Repetition and pattern create expectation. After two instances, the expectation is now established that the next such occurrence should play out the same way the first two did.
What you have now created as a storyteller is an opportunity. You have SET an EXPECTATION. You are now poised to SPIKE THE DEVIATION. You are free to REVERSE the audience's expectation and… voila! You have a surprise.
You've seen this a million times. Pies in the face. The third creaky door opening in horror movies. It may be why there were THREE Stooges, instead of two. Aristotle understood the power of the Rule of 3. So did Lucille Ball. Even the Knock Knock joke uses the Rule of 3. Comedy and horror can be very formulaic, obviously, because the basics ARE so simple and powerful, so it's up to you to bring something FRESH to the table.
For shorts, the rule works not only within dialogue, but also as the substrate for the entire, simple story. Consider an event, annoyance, attempt, observation, or other device that can effectively be built into the narrative. In the short film, it's important to keep the plot simple! The Rule of 3 allows you to do that.
JULIE'S SHORT PRIMER RULE #2
Use a gimmick.
The reason advertising works is that it is powered by gimmicks that are repeated… usually about 3 times. A gimmick is like a door prize that the audience should want to keep. Something interesting, bite-sized and memorable. It can be a concept that binds everything together, or a character, or a combination of the two. Think about the guy from the movie Office Space with his red stapler. They now make red staplers because so many people have requested them. That's the kind of door prize I'm talking about. Everyone should want one.
As with advertising, a good gimmick should appeal to our lowest common denominator: The Monkey Brain. This is not the realm of high intellect, so one of the following Monkey Brain activities should be involved: food, sex, safety or identity/belonging. The red stapler appeals to people's need for identity and uniqueness, and the character's struggle for security and territory, belonging. See? This Monkey Brain stuff seems simple, but it runs surprisingly deep.
The gimmick can also be a phrase that is repeated, like in The Jerk where Steve Martin searches for and finds his "Special Purpose" which he finally decides is sex. Another type of gimmick is the broad, comedic misconception. Will Farrell's character in Elf absurdly believes and embodies his own giant elf-hood. This gimmick also plays off of our core Monkey Brain need for identity and belonging.
So, use a gimmick and repeat as necessary.
JULIE'S SHORT PRIMER RULE #3
Use a twist at the end.
Mostly because you CAN. You can't often get away with a good twist in a feature film because the audience has invested so much time and emotional involvement in the characters. A huge departure from the most obvious expectation (for a happy ending) in a feature must be set up, and meticulously concealed, or it will not be satisfying. The Sixth Sense is a good example of the arduous plotting necessary to accomplish the miracle twist on the grand scale. But note that the writer/director has not been completely successful at repeating his admirable fete.
In a short film, on the other hand, it's not that difficult to finish bold, with something that should punch through that last moment and into the empty space after the film. That way, when people see the option to "share," they are more likely to do so.
Okay, quiz time: If we want to create a twist, or surprise ending, what do we do? Naturally, we employ that magical Rule of 3.
So, make sure you create a good twist at the end.
THE PRIMER RULES IN ACTION:
I had nothing to do with this hilarious short film, The New Thing, but I was an instant fan. Watch it and then I'll break it down:
This film still makes me laugh, and I don't even really like violence. The script combines a silly, but shocking gimmick and a messy twist at the end.
The universal story basics are all here: The hook comes the moment the smiling, affable friend SLAPS his buddy. As a character, we identify with the guy in the red shirt who wants to fit in, but seems to have been left out. He's sympathetic because he makes mistakes and tries a little too hard to fit into a completely absurd social situation. Each new rule is increasingly elaborate as to be indecipherable and the consequences for error increase as well.
The depth of irony here is pretty great. Kids using school yard bully tactics to enforce each other's geek-ish knowledge of grammar is fairly hilarious.
The gimmick is the idea that friends would make up some arbitrary, grammar-based set of rules so they could beat the crap out of one another and smile the whole time: violence is cool! The Monkey Brain appeal here is our need to belong, and our fear of being socially outcast. Though, we might need to admit to ourselves that on some level, the desire to SMACK people, even if we're not normally the violent type, also exists somewhere in the violent recesses of our universal Monkey Brain.
The film is basically structured by the first three grammar rules. The first act is learning to expect the SLAP rule. Interestingly, on a local first act level, the rule uses the Q&A, two-beat set-up and pay-off. He asks a question and it's answered with a slap.
The second act involves the incomplete sentence rule, which results in being kicked. From there, combinations ensue. By the time the third act comes around, when the Hockey Punch rule is invoked and explained, the combinations are really flying, and we're DONE. Our guy has had enough, even though we're still laughing. He has his character ARC and he's no longer willing to put up with this stupid game, even at the expense of becoming an outcast. The stakes are too high for him.
Our guy in the red shirt bows out just in time for the Expletive Twist – a bottle to the head for suing a swear word. Each time a new rule and violent consequence is added, the stakes have been effectively increased. In the end, they're using sharp objects and the kid already said he didn't want to play anymore.
You can also see how repetition is extremely effective for comedy.
That's the sum of my Short Primer of Smart Shorts. And remember that all these tactics can help your feature script, too.
Good luck and keep writing.
The Smart Script Primer For Short Films
Feature film Story Consultant Julie Marsh tells the 1,2,3s of short film writing and gives advice to all you would-be film makes. YouTube has change the way we share our short films, and Julie's work has helped short films go from internet obscurity to Good Morning American in a short period of time. Learn how to build tension and break expectation in your short films. Read Julie's article.