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Brainstorming for short film ideas can be tough at first but understanding what a short film is can help you get the creative juices flowing.

Brainstorming for short film ideas can be tough at first but understanding what a short film is can help you get the creative juices flowing. Ideas are all around. You just need to know where, and more importantly, how to look for them.

Here are our quick tips for brainstorming short film ideas:

  • Determine how long your short film will be.
  • Think small.
  • Start with a location.
  • Think about your experiences.
  • Look in the news.
  • Base your story on a character.
  • Get feedback.
  • Think about your theme.

How Long Is A Short Film?

A short film is anything up to 40 minutes as a general rule, but they are getting shorter and shorter and the sweet spot seems to linger between 7 to 15 minutes. The most important thing is to choose the length that suits the story you want to tell. If you can tell a story in two minutes, do it.

A two-minute short is called a micro-short and they are a terrific exercise in brevity. I saw a great short that started inside a car with a Driving Instructor and a student. The student asks if he passed and the Instructor hands him a clipboard that falls up and lands on the ceiling. We cut to the exterior and we see that the car is crashed upside down. Short and sweet.

Think Small

Don’t overthink it. The biggest mistake people make when they embark on a short script is they are thinking in the three-act structure, which is the feature film format. Even if you aren’t familiar with the three-act structure, if you have watched enough movies, you are very likely thinking the same way.

Feature films are complex with plots and subplots. A short film is a bite size piece of a feature script. It is a scene or a few scenes that introduce a character, a problem and a solution. It doesn’t have to be clever or have a twist. All it needs are characters we feel for in a situation that gets our attention.

Don’t cram a feature into a short. For example, instead of telling the story of a princess in a galaxy far, far away who unwittingly recruits a motley crew that rescue her from an evil emperor in a “piece of junk,” focus on a part of the story. A princess, pursued by bad guys hides important documents in a droid who escapes in a pod to keep them safe.

The best way to erase a three-act structure habit is to watch short films. Find out who won Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca or other big festivals to see what makes a good short film work. A lot of them are available online and if you have Amazon Prime, they stream a lot of award-winning short films. Once you have watched good examples of short films it will be easier to brainstorm ideas.

Where to Find Short Film Ideas

If you are not good with plot, fear not! All you need is a character, a problem and a solution. You can start anywhere, but there are a few ways to build an idea.

1. Start with a location.

Think about a particular location – a bus stop, the car wash – anything, and start asking questions about it. Who goes there? How do they feel when they are there? Let’s use a high school locker room, for example. What happens in a locker room? How do people feel when they go into a locker room?

What happens when a freshman goes into the locker room for the first time and realizes he or she has to change clothes in that wide, open space for the first time? Or worse – shower! As you start asking questions, think about how you can string them together to tell a story in a few scenes.

Brainstorm: Jot down some locations and tap into how you react to that location. Better yet, go to a location and observe other people. See what emotions or conflict pop up around this location.

2. Think about your experiences.

Your life is nothing but a bunch of stories and the experiences that will likely touch an audience are the ones that really affected you. Try to remember a time that hit you emotionally. See if you can tell the story in a few scenes.

Think about something you set out to do that went terribly wrong or maybe something that turned out better than you expected. The situation doesn’t have to be extraordinary. It can be something that you do every day. It just has to be relatable.

A friend of mine knew her boyfriend was going to propose so she spent an entire day pampering herself with a DIY spa day. She had read about a treatment that entailed putting teabags over the eyes that would make her look radiant and rested.

After sitting with her eyes closed for 30 minutes with wet teabags on them, she took off the teabags to reveal big red stains. She had used the wrong kind of tea and her boyfriend proposed to her big, red eyes! That is a story than can be told in two scenes.

Brainstorm: Pay attention to your day and the moments you have: waiting in line for coffee; stuck at a red light; a flat tire. How can you turn these into a story? Think deeper. Take waiting in line for coffee — if you are addicted to coffee and haven’t had your morning cup, it’s very different than standing in line for your third cup.
How do these circumstances affect your character? What happens if it’s finally your turn and the Barista tells you they are out of coffee? It’s examining situations in this way that gives you a short story. Just remember, you must find the conflict in order for your viewers to be invested. If a guy gets in line and just gets a cup of coffee, people will be bored.

3. Look in the news.

News events and historical events can always be the basis of a film. Just remember to focus on something you can tell in a few scenes. You can also just use the headline for inspiration. Headlines are a great place to play a game of “what if.” Make up your own story to go with the headline.

For example, if you read about a swarm of locusts that destroys a bunch of crops, ask questions that start with “what if” – what if the locusts were mutated? What if the new crop that grew after the swarm gave people super powers? The game of “what if” is endless and can foster many ideas.

Brainstorm: Try it! As you browse the news or social media, grab a couple of headlines and play the “what if” game.

4. Base a story on a character.

Observe people in your life. Everyone is a walking story. If you find someone interesting, build a story around his or her experience. Or you can take someone who seems ordinary, who does the same thing every day and find what is interesting in that. What can you say about a mother who goes through the same routine every day? What can you say about the Mail Carrier who walks the same streets every day?

Brainstorm: Chat with someone you don’t know too well – a classmate or a work mate — to find out more about them.

Get Feedback

Hopefully the brainstorming has gotten an idea to brew. Don’t overthink it. Pick the idea that resonates the most with you and run with it. The next thing you want to do is to see if your idea is developed enough to keep someone’s attention. It’s time to take it for a test drive.

The best way to see if something will resonate with an audience is to talk to your friends about the story. Pitch your idea. See how they react. Your friends will always try to support you so the best way to tell if they really like an idea is to see what they have to say about it. If they are engaged and bouncing ideas back at you, then you are onto something.

If they keep the comments simple like “That’s cool,” try to develop the idea more. Very often what is missing is conflict. Find conflict and you will find the drama or humor.

Think About Your Theme

The secret to developing a good story is by understanding why you want to tell that story. So after you have that idea and it seems to spark interest in the people you pitch, dig deeper to find your theme. What bigger idea can you explore?

Your theme is the underlying idea of your story. It might be a story about a dyslexic kid that wins a spelling bee, but the theme might be “overcoming obstacles.” When you hone in on a theme, you bring yourself closer to your audience because you are sharing your unique perspective of the human condition.

Let’s go back to the locker room. We all know the angst of our first visit to the locker room, but instead of sticking with the anxiety, what happens if we show the student empowered and confident by the end? Then we have a story about fear and anxiety being an illusion and how someone overcomes these feelings.

There Are No New Ideas

We have been hearing the same stories since the beginning of time. From Romeo and Juliet to Silas Marner, stories are repeated over and over. The good news is that we still love stories, and no one can tell a story the way you can. You are unique and that is what makes your story different. Once you have your short film idea, don’t doubt it. Tell it in your style and it will find an audience.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our article discussing How to make a short film festivals want.

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