How often have you been told as an actor to go make your own content? Go write a short. Go star in your own short film. Sounds easy enough.
But how do you make sure that short actually helps your career instead of draining your bank account? Let’s break down the five most common mistakes actors make when writing their first short and how to avoid them.
1. Condensing a feature story into a short format.
Writing a short doesn’t mean taking a full-length feature idea and just shrinking it down. A story has a feature-length because it requires that long to pay off the emotional journey of the character. If you condense it down, you’re depriving us of the necessary components of that character’s arc for us to have an emotional response to the story. The whole point of telling a story is to get your audience to feel something, but by reducing a feature-length arc to a short, you’re making that impossible.
Instead, try to think of a short as capturing a moment. If we accept that a feature film has the five major story points of three-act structure (inciting incident, plot point one, midpoint, plot point two, climax), in a short focus instead on capturing the build-up to only one of those story points, or moments. Here’s an extra reward: if you focus on culminating in a moment (instead of a long resolution), you’ll achieve the twist everyone is always looking for in a good short.
2. Writing a long short.
A short is not 30 pages long. It’s not 45 pages long. By its very name, a short is designed to be short-form storytelling. Therefore challenge yourself to be true to the medium itself. I promise you if you can tell a story in 20 pages, you can tell it in 12, and if you can tell it in 12, you can tell it in five.
In fact, if you can embrace the idea of short-form storytelling, you’ll also be turning yourself into a better screenwriter. Screenwriting is by its very nature a craft of telling a story within a confined amount of space. Learning how to tell a story with economy will be a skill you’ll apply to every script going forward. Ask yourself: what is the story I’m telling, and at every beat of that story what is the most interesting and visual way I can tell that story beat in the least amount of space?
Further, look at the beginning and end of the short and ask yourself how late can I start for people to still understand, and how quickly can I end for people to understand? This basic rule makes for a tight and effective short and sharpens your twist at the end.
3. Writing a boring lead.
You probably set out to write this short so that you could act in it yourself and play the lead. You also probably set out to create a character that compliments your best features, in the hopes it’ll create acting opportunities. If you do this, I promise, you’ll be the least interesting part of your short.
Instead, focus on your flaws. When we craft interesting characters that aren’t based on ourselves or people we know, we understand that their flaws are what makes us care, their edges are what makes them struggle, and what makes their triumphs have an emotional payoff for the audience. But when it comes to writing ourselves, we forget this and instead try to highlight all of our best qualities, which inevitably falls flat and dull on the screen, with no reason for your audience to care.
Pick some characteristics about yourself that people might actually dislike and use those to build a sharp character. If you do that, you’ll be giving your character the opportunity to learn, the chance to grow, and therefore a way for your audience to root for your character and care.
4. Telling a story I’ve seen.
Presumably, the goal of making a short isn’t just to make it, but to get it seen. So you lock the picture and start submitting to festival after festival but you’re getting no results. The average short film festival receives upwards of 2,000 submissions for each category. Now think about those programmers who year after year, season after season, watch short after short, and you’ll realize they’ve probably seen a story like yours. If we accept that everyone has a story about loss, everyone has a story about friendship, everyone has a story about a crime gone wrong, or a betrayal, etc. then ask what makes yours any different?
It has to come down to why you’re telling the story. What is unique about your point of view on that story? Yes, it’s a story about grief, but what are you trying to say about grief? What’s your point? Through discovering that specific truth that’s unique to you, you can make your story unique, and you’ll catch a programmer’s eye.
5. Hiring a director.
You were told to go make your own short, which probably means you wrote it, are going to star in it, and probably have a solid hand in producing it. So it makes logical sense to hire a director for it, right? Wrong. Here’s the thing about the film festival circuit, most film festivals are designed to reward the filmmaker. So even if you star in it, write it, and produce it, you’ll never get as much attention on the circuit as the filmmaker will.
So if you really want to make the most of the experience, gain as much as you can from the contacts you’ll meet out on the circuit and use it to promote your own work. You might as well push yourself a little further and direct it yourself. (Make sure you give yourself a great DP to support you, and a great producing team.) Wearing the filmmaker hat will open the doors you wanted to open by tiptoeing down this road to begin with. Remember, whatever the title, director, writer, or actor, the job is the same. Tell a good story. Just with different tools.
Writing a short can have tremendous benefits to your career. By avoiding these five mistakes, you’ll be setting yourself up for success and providing yourself with an opportunity to springboard your short not only into more opportunities as an actor, but maybe even open the door to becoming a triple threat.
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