The Long and Short of It


Stories are stories. Period. Long ones. Short ones. Middle-sized ones. Good ones all have the same basic ingredients. A hero we care about. Fighting for something they want. Obstacles standing in the way of them achieving their goal that force them to grow. And ultimately a resolution, often positive, but not always, of them getting, or not getting, what they want. Not so hard, right? Feature screenwriters have this preached and prodded into their brains from day one. But what about short filmmakers? For some reason, some of them don’t feel they have to tow this line. Where did they go off the rails? “Short films don’t have to have a beginning, middle and end,” I’ve heard them say. Instead, they can just be “moments” or “windows” or “slices of life” of a story. You know what they call those kind of films? Bad. Sometimes boring. Or one note. Some short filmmakers claim they don’t have time to tell a three act story. I call bullshit. Even :30 second commercials for Coca-Cola or AT&T will have you reaching for a Kleenex by the end. You know why? Because they pull you in, roll you round, drop you down, then lift you up. All in the time it takes you to wash a dish. Story structure is there for your protection. It’s not a contrivance. It’s not a formula. It’s storytelling. Sure, you can take the three act model and turn it on its ear. Just ask Quentin Tarantino. You can take the three act model and slice it into seven acts. Just ask James Cameron. But all in all, you want an introduction, a complication and a resolution. You pull that off, you’re well on your way to a sound story. If you don’t, you’re screwed. Of course, it helps if you know where your story is going. Where your hero is headed. Then you can plot the twists and turns to them getting there with relative ease. It’s those that dive into those uncharted waters with reckless abandon longing for the unknown that end up drowning in the murky abyss of the middle. Like taking a road trip, map out your route before you get in the car. Know your turns. Know your stops. Know your end! I promise having these elements in mind won’t rob you of the creative process. On the contrary, they will help you. And like any road trip, there will still be plenty of surprises along the way.