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Scriptwriting for student short films

Scriptwriting is both an art and a craft. There’s no doubt it’s the key to any great movie or television production. It’s certainly a key element to making student short films. Film scrips, or screenplays, have a unique layout and require writers to think differently. Scriptwriting can be a great teaching tool as well.

Getting started

Unlike a script for a stage production, screenplays generally give minimal direction to the actor. They also provide little detail about the setting. Essentially, the primary goal of screenplays is to help your entire crew — from location scouts to producers, directors, casting directors and actors — visualize what the audience will see.

Writing a screenplay is different from any other form of writing. Screenwriters use a specialized format when writing. This format uses a single column, centered text page with specific indentations and capitalization for scene headings, dialogue, parenthetical and more.

It can be a lot to consider for someone new to scriptwriting. It’s a hard craft to learn — and even harder to teach. Fortunately, there are several digital tools to help you in that area. Many professionals use Final Draft or the less expensive Celtx. These tools will help you put your script into the correct form. They also will break down your script into sections when you start to shoot. 

Additionally, scriptwriting templates are available for programs you probably already own, like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages.

Starting to write your script

The script generally begins with the scene number and the words “Fade up.” You follow this with a brief scene notation like “EXT Day.” This communicates that the first thing you’ll see is an exterior scene and it’s daytime. 

Next, you’ll include a location heading, such as “playground.” Location headings allow directors to create an efficient shooting schedule. They will group all of the scenes with the same location together and shoot them in the same time block. So while it might be scenes 1 and 9, they will be shot together to save time.

Thinking of dialogue

At its core, screenplay writing is the art of dialogue strung together by action and locations. Screenwriters have to think about how people speak and react realistically. Listening intently to real-world conversations can be a great exercise for students. The exercise will challenge them to really listen to how people speak.

Scriptwriters not only have to consider how people realistically speak, but they also have to consider how their characters would personally communicate. In the initial phase of writing dialogue, screenwriters need to consider why a character says the words written. It requires some empathy with the character and may require some backstory. For instance, if the character starts an argument on the playground, the screenwriter needs to imagine what happened before to cause the argument.

Next, the screenwriter will write more dialogue and actions for the characters. Again, screenwriters will need to ask some questions like:

“Would this character react this way?”

“Would they say it that way?”

“At some point, would the person do something else, like walk away?”

Thinking scene by scene

Screenplay writers need to conceptualize the script’s story scene by scene. While scripts tell a cohesive story and use the primary story arcs, they’re divided scene by scene.

First, the screenplay writer needs to decide when and where the scene begins and ends. It might even help to frame the shot first with a storyboard. A storyboard, a series of images that tell the general concept of the film, can help the screenplay writer visualize the scene. The images drawn in the storyboard will then become the scenes in the script.

Once completing the script, it’s time to film scene by scene. To use our previous example, two characters exchange dialogue on a playground that causes a heated interaction. It’s now important to consider what the characters do and where they’ll end up once the conversation gets heated. Maybe the next scene finds them in detention. The script would write the following scene notation as “Scene 2 – INT Day – Detention Room.” This communicates that the next scene will occur inside the detention room during the day.

A good rule of thumb, especially for short films, is if a scene doesn’t move the story forward, get rid of it. If there’s no purpose for including it, it runs the risk of muddying your script’s plot and overall message.

Manage your time well

Perhaps the biggest factor in scriptwriting is time. There are generally certain time restrictions given for a script. For instance, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a short film is no longer than 40 minutes. Typically, one page of a script equals one minute of film runtime. This requires scriptwriters to be a clear and concise as possible to tell their stories at a reasonable length.

It can take years to master the art and craft of scriptwriting. However, there are many resources out there to help you understand the process of scriptwriting and help your students format their scripts correctly. It’s a unique writing format that can be an excellent tool for educators and students when creating videos.