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Making a Short Movie: The Story

Whatever kind of short movie you’re making, you need to think about your story and how you’ll tell it.

Josh Soskin’s short Milk Run tells an engaging story in less than three minutes. It starts with a mystery, maintains the interest, and lets the audience use their imagination. 

Keep it short

When you start making movies, it’s important to keep them short. Shorter than you think. Build your storytelling skills before you go on to create longer films. They take much more time to do properly, and it’s harder to structure them and keep your viewers interested.

Short film tips

  • Grab the viewer’s attention from the start
  • Keep them interested: move the story on, keep the pace up
  • Only include what you have to: leave out anything that doesn’t help tell the story
  • Keep it simple: one story, one or two places, one or two characters
  • Show, don’t tell: use images, sound and editing rather than dialogue
  • Get the audience to use their imagination: you don’t have to spell out everything

Starting your movie

If your movie’s an online video, you only have a few seconds to capture your viewers’ attention. You can do this by a combination of

  • using really good or unusual camerawork
  • using evocative music or sound
  • showing something intriguing before you reveal what it is
  • making it obvious that the story’s about interesting people, places or things

Story structure

You could follow the story structure that you might see in a feature film, with a beginning, middle and end. There’s a setup, where you introduce the characters and the situation, then add a challenge or problem; the development, where they work through the challenges; and the resolution, where the story comes to an end.

If you’re making a very short movie you don’t necessarily need to follow this: you can rely on an interesting or unusual approach, or you can show a small slice of life that the viewer understands is part of a longer story.

Be wary of twists

Many beginner filmmakers come up with a clever story idea that relies on surprising the audience with a twist or reveal. That can work, but not on its own: your story needs to be interesting and engaging all the way through, not just at the end.

Fiction story ideas

  • Find an interesting place and work out what kind of story you could tell there
  • Film a day in the life
  • Take a character on a journey
  • Start at the end: think of a good way to end your movie then work backwards.
  • Take a news photo or headline as a starting point: what events led up to it?
  • Find a single prop or object and base your story on it
  • Find three objects and work out a story that would connect them
  • Set a story in a confined space (a lift/elevator, a small room)
  • Base a story on an overheard conversation
  • Retell a family story or a local legend
  • Clash or combine genres (Alien is a horror movie set in space)

You could start with a story everyone knows, and tell it in a different way:

  • Change the point of view: Red Riding Hood from the viewpoint of the wolf or the woodcutter
  • Change the form: Goldilocks as a documentary or news story
  • Change the period or the place: O Brother Where Art Thou? is Homer’s Odyssey relocated to 1920s America
  • Add a character from a different genre, story, place or period.

Tom Barrance

Tom Barrance I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots