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Write Lots, Write Shorts

October 24, 2011

I just completed a short film script for a contest, one of these speed-writing deals where you get seven days to write a script no more than 12 pages long. I did it for fun and I’m not anxious whether or not my script gets picked as a finalist or anything like that. I did take it seriously, but it was more for my own benefit than any big dreams. I have made movies and I’m working on more, so it’s not my ‘ticket outta here’ win or lose.

[AND, I do really like my final script; that also makes it fun.]

What struck me today as I was e-mailing my entry off to the powers-that-be is that short film scripts could be more of a core creative outlet and emphasis for me. I have always envied people in other arts like songwriters, painters, sculptors, and poets. I have dabbled in some of these creative forms so I know the same discipline, drudgery, and pain are present in the creative process. However, in each of these you have at least two things going for you: typically a more compact end product, and you can usually complete something on your own. [I know there are epics in any medium, but I’m talking about more usual forms.] When I write a song or a poem I know that it will fit in perhaps a few pages at most. If I could paint, I could create full expressions in a corner of my room if I chose. I will certainly work and re-work the song but it is usually in a whole different category than a feature screenplay – which is more like an opera or symphony.

I recently found and shared a short video clip featuring some words of wisdom from Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” on NPR. He was speaking somewhere about storytelling.

Ira’s main point is that storytellers need to tell lots of stories, tell them often, make mistakes, and hopefully get better. I’m sure I’m not alone if I admit that I get bogged down and intimidated at the thought of cranking out many feature-length screenplays.

Obviously, there are things you can only learn by writing a feature. You can’t really master the many beats in a feature, full act structures, sub-plots, and many other things you must eventually master. However, writing a short film script can help you to master characters, scene construction, dialogue, economy in your writing, transformations, and many other principles that are essential to good writing. I had a lot of fun working within the arbitrary constraints of a 12-page screenplay. It’s like doing a tv commercial. People complain about the storytelling constraints until they learn that they can pack their seconds and frames with story, creativity, and characters; it just takes a different kind of discipline.

So, all the arguments aside about whether or not shorts can help you make it in Hollywood, I believe writing short film scripts can serve your craft in much the same way writing lots of bad (and a few good) songs helps a songwriter. Even better if you want to direct and produce as well because you can benefit in the same ways because you are actually working in your craft rather than bogged down in the epic. That will come with time.

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