You’ve got a phenomenal idea for a short film. The story is powerful, engaging, and emotional. Now you just need to sit down and write the script. But before typing “FADE IN: ” think carefully – just how long should your short film script be?
It’s a thrilling moment when a screenwriter sits down to write a new short film script. Hundreds of ideas may be swirling in your mind for characters, settings, and story scenarios. However, before diving into the creative process, an important practical question arises – just how long should your script be?
Unlike feature-length films that have an expected 90+ minute runtime, short films can vary greatly in terms of length. So what page count should you target when writing your short film script? Does the story dictate the length? Or do standard industry expectations determine it?
This article will break down the key factors when deciding on your short film script length, including:
- Standard page guidelines that most shorts follow
- Differences in short script structure compared to features
- Examples of acclaimed short films and their script lengths
- Tips for maximizing storytelling within tight page constraints
By understanding the unique opportunities and challenges of short scripts compared to features, you can embrace the format and develop compelling stories within standard length recommendations. Let’s take a look at how long you should plan for when writing your next short film script masterpiece.
Defining Short Films and Scripts
Before diving into specifics on length, it helps to level set on exactly what a short film and short film script are.
A short film is defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an original film with a runtime of 40 minutes or less. Short films can be used as standalone pieces, as part of an anthology, or even as proof of concepts for eventual feature films.
The script for a short film outlines everything about the story including scenes, actions, dialogue, and more. It serves as the blueprint that the production crew will use to actually make the short film. Scripts need to convey story information in a clear, concise format.
Short film scripts have a number of structural differences compared to feature film scripts. Since they involve less storytelling, short scripts need to be tighter and follow their own conventions when it comes to format, story structure, and length.
Standard Short Film Script Length
So just how long is a short film script compared to a full-length feature film? Here are some general guidelines:
- Short Film Script Length: Approximately 5-40 pages
- Feature Film Script Length: Approximately 80-130 pages
In the world of screenwriting, there is a general rule of thumb that each page of a script translates to about one minute of screen time. So a 90-120 page feature script would yield a 90-120 minute film.
Applying this same logic to short film scripts, a script length of 5-40 pages would yield a runtime of 5-40 minutes.
Most short films tend to be on the shorter side, with average run times of 5-15 minutes which corresponds to scripts that are 5-15 pages. However, with film festivals and other outlets being more accepting of longer short films, scripts up to 30-40 pages that yield 30-40 minute shorts are also common.
A few examples of different short film script lengths:
- 5 pages = 5 minutes short
- 10 pages = 10 minutes short
- 15 pages = 15 minutes short
- 30 pages = 30 minute short
- 40 pages = 40 minute short
It’s worth noting that some scripts may run slightly shorter or longer than a direct 1 page = 1-minute conversion. Factors like the amount of dialogue, action sequences, and editing pace can affect final runtimes. But in general, the 1 page per minute rule is a reliable guideline.
Short Script Structure Considerations
Beyond just page counts and minutes, the structure of short film scripts also differs from feature-length scripts in key ways. Understanding these structural differences can help guide your approach when writing a short.
Limited Time for Character and Story Development
One of the biggest constraints that short film scripts face is the limited amount of time available to introduce characters, establish the central conflict, and resolve the story. While feature-length scripts have 90+ pages to layer in backstory, develop complex characters, and construct intricate plot points, shorts must do this much more efficiently.
Generally, short film scripts can only provide a brief glimpse into a character’s life – just one pivotal moment or story. There isn’t room for lengthy exposition or meandering subplots. Every single scene must directly advance the core story.
This requires writers to craft scenes and dialogue very intentionally. There may only be time for 1-3 key scenes. Any superfluous moments not vital to the narrative must be cut. Writers must also quickly establish the central conflict and stakes right away since there are only a few pages before the story needs to wrap up.
Condensed Three-act Structure
Given the restricted timeline, short scripts need to adhere to a tight three-act structure:
- Act 1: The Setup – This very brief act introduces the main character(s), the situation, and the central conflict they face. The setup provides just enough background information before propelling the story forward.
- Act 2: Point of No Return – The midpoint of the script where the character makes a key decision or passes the point of no return. They are fully committed to confronting the conflict. This propels the story to the climax.
- Act 3: Climactic Resolution – During the brief final act, the character deals with the ramifications of their actions and the story comes to a dramatic close. The central conflict is resolved, for better or worse.
There’s no room in a short script for meandering subplots or extended sequences that don’t tie back to the main storyline. Every single scene needs to directly advance the three-act structure.
Creative Freedom With Short Film Scripts
While short film scripts come with tight constraints in terms of length and structure, they also offer opportunities for creativity and experimentation.
Some screenwriters use the compressed format to tell unconventional stories they wouldn’t be able to stretch into feature-length films. The limited runtime lends itself well to more avant-garde ideas or narrative structures that focus more on moments versus traditional plot and character growth.
Shorts can also allow a writer to isolate and explore one dynamic scene or sequence in depth that wouldn’t warrant an entire feature. For example, a compelling 10-minute script could focus on just an intense conversation between two characters. Or a 5 minute short could capture a single poignant moment.
Many aspiring screenwriters get their start developing their voice and taking creative risks through the short script format before tackling features. Even established writers will pen short scripts to experiment with a new genre or storytelling technique without committing to a full-length project.
In summary, the condensed timeline of a short film script can be viewed as a benefit that fosters innovation. Constraints in terms of length and structure allow writers to distill their narrative down to the bare essentials.
Tips for Writing Compelling Short Film Scripts
By understanding the unique opportunities and challenges of short scripts compared to features, you can embrace the format and develop compelling stories within the standard length guidelines. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Know the common length – Be aware that most short film scripts are 5-15 pages which equates to 5-15 minute run times. But also recognize you can go as long as 30-40 pages for a longer short film.
- Adhere to a tight three-act structure – Your short script should cleanly follow a structured beginning, middle, and end without unnecessary filler scenes just to take up space.
- Establish stakes and conflict quickly – You only have a few pages to hook the audience with an engaging central conflict. Avoid excessive exposition.
- Reveal just enough about characters – Introduce your protagonist and their motivation efficiently through dialogue and action. No lengthy backstories.
- Prioritize scenes that propel the narrative – Every single scene and sequence must directly tie back to the central storyline. Cut any excess.
- Take narrative risks – Embrace creative limitations to experiment with unconventional story structures and concepts you can fully explore in just a few minutes.
Examples of Impactful Short Film Scripts
To better understand how to maximize storytelling potential within a limited number of script pages, it helps to look at real-world examples of impactful and successful short films.
Pixar’s ‘For the Birds’ (Script Length: Approximately 10 pages)
In 2000, Pixar released the animated short film For the Birds, which played before their feature film Monsters Inc. At only 3 minutes long, the entire story is told with no dialogue – just expressive animation and sound.
The script captures the whole setup, conflict, and resolution in just about 10 pages:
- Act 1 introduces a flock of small birds sitting comfortably on a wire. Then a large, goofy bird arrives and squeezes in, annoying the others.
- Act 2 escalates the conflict as the awkward large bird persists in trying to chat with the flock. The smaller birds grow more aggravated.
- Act 3 provides a climax when the weight of the birds on one side of the wire causes it to launch the birds on the opposite end into the air. The short ends on a comedic note as the blame falls squarely on the large bird.
For the Birds demonstrates how much story can happen in just a few pages when the writer distills the narrative down to its essence.
George Lucas’ ‘Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB’ (Script Length: 15 pages)
Before launching his Star Wars empire, a young George Lucas made the dystopian short film THX 1138 4EB in 1967 while attending USC film school. It runs about 15 minutes long, so the script likely consists of approximately 15 pages.
The short film tells the story of THX 1138, a man attempting to escape a totalitarian society set in the 25th century where emotions, coitus, and freedom of choice are outlawed through mandatory drug use.
This script exhibits Lucas’ knack for world-building and fits nicely into the science fiction genre. It provided early evidence of his visual storytelling skills. Despite its brevity, the 15 pages establish an immersive setting, central conflict, and resolution.
Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Big Shave’ (Script Length: 5 pages)
Director Martin Scorsese crafted the gritty allegorical short The Big Shave in 1967 while attending NYU film school. It runs just 5 minutes with a script of only about 5 pages.
The intentionally bizarre film shows a man shaving in an increasingly aggressive and disturbing manner. The short is widely interpreted as a commentary on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the brutality of the draft.
Scorsese manages to work potent social commentary and build palpable tension within the extremely confined parameters of a 5-page script. The brevity adds to the impact as the viewer tries to comprehend what they just witnessed in such a short period of time.
‘Validation’ by Kurt Kuenne (Script Length: Approximately 12-15 pages)
The 2011 short film Validation scored over 10 million YouTube views and took home the coveted Audience Award at its premiere in the Napa Valley Film Festival.
At 16 minutes long, the script likely runs 12-15 pages which include over 100 lines of dialogue performed by a single actor. The simple premise involves a parking lot attendant named Vernon complimenting patrons as they come and go until one interaction changes his life.
The short displays how a focused storyline and expert dialogue can make the absolute most of limited pages. Never wasting a moment, the 15 or so pages dynamically lead the audience on an emotional journey solely through conversation.
As these examples of acclaimed short films demonstrate, compelling and complete story arcs can happen within the tight page constraints of 5-40 script pages. While features have more room to meander, short film scripts require a strict economy of writing.
Some key lessons that writers of short scripts should keep in mind include:
- Every single scene moves the story forward. No deviation from the core narrative.
- Conflict and tension ramp up quickly given short runtime.
- Dialogue carries much of the storytelling load.
- Visuals and actions must be concise and deliberate.
- Formatting and structure remain clean and consistent.
By studying impactful shorts and just how much mileage their creative teams were able to get out of 5-40 script pages, new short film writers can better understand how to maximize their scripts. The short format provides an exciting creative challenge in terms of telling the most engaging story possible in the least amount of pages.
Deciding how long your short film script should be is an important balancing act. Lean too short, and you may not fully develop the narrative. Drag on too long, and you’ll lose the creative restrictions that focus the story.
By following standard industry length guidelines of 5-40 pages while also understanding the structural considerations of shorts, you can land on the perfect script length to tell your unique story. Just remember that brevity, clarity, and economy are key.
Every line and moment in your limited pages need purpose. While it can seem daunting to limit yourself to such a compressed format, the constraints imposed by short scripts make you a sharper, more thoughtful writer. That skill serves any screenwriter well, regardless of whether they’re writing 30-second commercials or 3-hour cinematic epics.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many pages should a 5-minute short film script be?
A script for a 5-minute short film would generally be about 5 pages long, following the standard guideline that each script page equals approximately 1 minute of screen time. The story would need to be tight and concise to work within a 5-page constraint.
Can a short film script be 50 pages long?
It is quite rare for a short film script to exceed 40 pages in length. Most short film scripts are 5-15 pages long. However, there are exceptions where a script goes up to 40-50 pages, which would yield a longer short film of about 40-50 minutes. Film festivals sometimes have categories for these longer-form shorts.
Should you write short films for practice before writing a feature?
Many screenwriters recommend writing several short scripts before tackling a full-length feature film script. Shorts allow you to hone your storytelling skills in a more condensed format. You can experiment with new concepts without committing to developing them for 120 pages. Short scripts help you work on structure, characters, dialogue, and visual storytelling in a tighter package before moving to features.
Can a 10-page short film script be adapted into a full feature later on?
It is possible but challenging to adapt a 10-page short script into a full-length feature. You would need to significantly expand on the story, characters, subplots, and pacing to fill 90+ additional script pages. Often, concepts that originate in a short film format are better suited to remain as shorts. But lengthening shorts to features has been done before, so it’s not impossible.
Should you write the short film script first or find actors and crew first?
It is generally recommended to complete the entire short film script before bringing any crew or actors on board. Without a finished script, you won’t have the necessary details on the story, characters, locations, breakdown of scenes, dialogue, and more that producers, directors, and cast members will need to actually shoot the film. Finish the script first, then move forward with assembling your team.