48HFS 001: Writing Short Films

Screenwriter Peter Walters discusses the art of writing short films.

Peter Walters is a Beijing-based American screenwriter who has worked alongside some of China’s top film directors. He teaches screenwriting at Beijing Film Academy, is the co-founder of Scripted Studios and serves as director of the Beijing chapter of the China Hollywood Society. We ask him for some tips on what makes a good concept, where to find inspiration and why emotion is a screenwriter’s best friend.

The following is part of a special series we’re doing in the run-up to the 2019 48-Hour Film School in Shanghai (August 31-September 1) and Beijing (September 7-8). Check the bottom of this page for details on how you can sign up to be a part of the action.

EastIndie: First off, what do you think are some characteristics of a good short film?

Peter Walters: The most important characteristic of a short film is that it should be short—a lot of people forget this detail. The purpose of a short film is to achieve maximum emotion in minimal time. If you can deliver maximum emotion in 10 minutes, the film doesn’t need to be 15 minutes. If you can deliver it in 5 minutes, the film doesn’t need to be 10 minutes. Figure out what you’re trying to say and rewrite until you’re able to say it in a minimal time, minimal pages, minimal characters, minimal scenes, minimal dialogue and minimal budget.

EI: But, what if I’ve got an idea for a story that requires half-an-hour of screen time to really develop?

PW: At Beijing Film Academy, my students pitch me two ideas for a short film every Thursday. I listen to their ideas, ask questions and, together, we choose the idea we like best. They leave class and must write the short film by Tuesday. They do this 8 weeks in a row, pitching 16 ideas and writing 8 short films. Some students pitch “short” films that they envision to be 40 or 50 minutes, which doesn’t make any sense at all. The market for thirty-to-sixty-minute short films is non-existent.

If you can make people cry in 3 minutes, you and your family will never go hungry.

EI: OK, so, is there a hard limit on how long a short film can be?

PW: The point of making a short film is (usually) to demonstrate your ability to write (or direct or act), without spending too much money, and without taking up too much time of the viewer. I don’t want to say how much is too much, but 19 minutes is better than 20 minutes; 9 minutes is better than 10 minutes; 4 minutes is better than 5 minutes. My favorite short film is 3 minutes. Most people cry after watching it. If you can make people cry in 3 minutes, you and your family will never go hungry.

EI: Is there such thing as a bad concept or a bad approach to writing a short?

PW: Concepts are not created equal. The bad approach to me would be to think of a zany character who says crazy shit. That’s not good enough. I’ve seen so many of those types of short films fail one by one. The best short films are about important truths. The zany characters and witty dialogue work in service to that truth, not the other way around.

EI: Do you need to know the theme of your short film before you start writing?

PW: In my opinion, yes. Some writers are theme writers—they get it, they understand it and they’re story architects. But, other writers are not theme writers—they get other things, they understand different things, they are unique wizards who write amazing scenes, characters, dialogue and situations in a vacuum, without thinking about what it all means. I believe that the latter type of writer can (and should) be taught to understand and incorporate theme in order to elevate their stories from zany and brilliant to profound and brilliant.

EI: What do you think are some good sources of inspiration for ideas?

PW: The best places to look for short film concepts are, first, your pet peeves and irritations, and, second, the things you find most beautiful and profound. In what way is the world messed up and in need of repair? Or, what is it about the world you find the most inspirational and sublime? Basically, what would you tell everyone in the world if you had just three-to-twenty minutes of their time? Forget about zany characters and witty dialogue when creating your concept. Focus on the things that matter most to you. The characters and scenes and dialogue will come later.

Every audience arrives at a point with every story where they ask, “Do I care enough to go on?” If the answer is “No,” the story is instantly over.

EI: Are there certain genres that work better than others in short films?

PW: Action can work, as can comedy. Horror is a spectacular genre for a short film because of its immediacy. Love/romance doesn’t work so well because love takes time to develop. Fantasy and adventure are usually too expensive for a short, as is science fiction. However, small sci-fi is spectacular—especially if you utilize a technologically imaginable world to teach us something about the here and now. Thriller is great because you’re (hopefully) delivering strong emotion in a short period of time. Coming of age is also good because, in just a few pages, you can focus on a life-changing moment that everyone can relate to and it comes with built-in empathy. Regardless of which genre you choose, just don’t forget that theme is slightly more important than character in a short.

EI: Lastly, you’ve mentioned the word ‘emotion’ a number of times now. Why is emotion such an important part of writing a short film?

PW: Every audience arrives at a point with every story where they ask, “Do I care enough to go on?” If the answer is “No,” the story is instantly over. If you don’t establish an emotional connection of some kind—for example, sympathy, pity, admiration, fascination—you’re wasting the audience’s time. There are ways to create emotions on every page. And, if you can create emotion on every page, again, your family will never go hungry.

The Shanghai 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, August 31 & Sunday, September 1 at Shanghai Filmspace, 3/F 102 South Xiangyang Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai / 上海市徐汇区襄阳南路102号3层. For details and registration, click here.

The Beijing 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, September 7 & Sunday, September 8 (venue TBC). For details and registration, click here.


Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian writer and editor. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

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