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The International Writers Magazine
: Screenwriting 101: Conflict and Short film: Notes

Seminar notes on Conflict and the Ten Minute Film

A film is about a character who wants to achieve something and ends up succeeding, or failing, but definitely changed by the experience

1: For a short film to work you need to get into the story fast. Start it later in the story.
Example: If someone is being stalked, it is only necessary to show a dark street, a shadow and the protagonist’s fear. (Real or unreal) No need to reveal everything or explain everything or show how they got there.
2: A short film is about conflict. (I guess all films are about conflict)
IE: Why does someone want to go home in a hurry? There is a problem at home.
Frustrating that goal is your objective. The conflict arises out of the character unable to get home because of tube strike, bomb on the line, bus breakdown, car breakdown, whatever, but the story comes from your characters frustration. Think: Planes Trains and Automobiles Steven Martin. The dialogue in the film pushes the story forward; the characterisation comes from the ‘bonding’ between two very different characters stuck in a situation together.
3: Conflict: Psychological
A character is sent to kill a child by someone and can’t do it. He knows that if he doesn’t do it the King, Prince, Mafia boss will kill him. He attempts to make the child disappear to make it appear he has killed him – producing a pig’s heart to prove it. Will the Boss, or King believe him. (Many Fairytales uses this device)
4: Conflict: Rivals
Marriage, relationships, brother and sister, son and father, boss and worker, teacher and student. Who is right, who is wrong? A ten minute film about doing lines for teacher can be funny or tragic depending on the outcome.
5: Twists
In short films try not to go for the twist ending. Your audience is often quite sophisticated and will second-guess the end. Concentrate on the visual aspect and dialogue. Is it real? Is it real enough? Irony is good.
6: Logic and acceptance.
We can accept any premise, if you supply the logic. Voyage through someone’s blood vessels for example, time travel, nuclear war, but the best stories go to some lengths to make it logical. This does not mean many special effects. Merely the set up from the beginning needs to be thoroughly thought through.
If time travel, how do make us believe it? See Sleeper, Woody Allen wakes up 200 years in the future and everything they tell us now about what is bad for us turns out to be good. Tobacco for example. In Minority Report, we know it is the future because of all the technology, but it still looks familiar. Better to view Bladerunner that envisioned a totally new future.
*A ten-minute film could explore the future simply by examining the conscience of a robot told to kill a chicken. (It might be thinking 'I am programmed not to kill' and this will cause inner conflict).

Rule ONE: Show only what is absolutely necessary to telling the story. Avoid inner thoughts, Always remember it is a visual medium.

What is the difference between protagonist and antagonist? Do you know? In your story if you find yourself rooting for the wrong character perhaps you need a rethink on character.
Every script is about learning something. Think, what has your character or characters learned from their experience? Has the antagonist also learned something? Developing an interesting ‘enemy’ gives balance to the hero (protoganist.) But don't overcook it and leave the 'hero' looking bland.

How are we supposed to feel about our characters? Are they thieves? Nice thieves or Natural Born Killers? Think hard about what it is that you are doing. Would YOU want to see this film? Would you pay to see it? Have you made the script strong enough so we ‘like’ the characters enough to want them to succeed. No matter if they are on the wrong side of the law. (Ocean’s Eleven, Heist, Confidence, Grosse Point Blank.)

If an explosive has been placed inside someone’s body and will explode unless they do whatever they are told to do...don’t forget to show us how it was put there. More importantly, demonstrate your power in a subtle way (See Phone Booth or Speed)
In a short movie, it is enough that the character believes this, even if it isn’t true.
Perhaps you are made to do unnatural acts or rob someone or kill someone if faced with this dilemma. You don’t even have to show it. It could be filmed as an interrogation or trial where the character simply believed they were in danger and acted accordingly. No matter the incredulity of the interrogators.
Think Jonestown massacre when everyone took poison so they could ride the comet. How do you get into that kind of psychological state? A story about someone who didn’t swallow, yet saw everyone around him die is a subject for a film.

Rule Two:
Get the character and structure down and the dialogue and visuals will surely follow.

Draw a diagram of your plot. Does it have three acts, two? More than three? How many? Are you sure? Does it have a beginning middle and end? Are you able to describe the story in 25 words? If not you may have problems.

Balance is everything. A short film needs to start fast, you have two minutes to hook us, leaving seven for the main story and, at least one minute for the impact ending. (It can be that we have three minutes opening, five main and two for the end but it’s your call. Watch some ten minute movies, watch one minute commercials. How are they able to cram so much into one minute? (Think Guinness Swimmer ad)

How do I know a ten minute story when I see one?

It’s as simple as ‘boy meets girl, girl plays hard to get, boy tries again but despairs, girl finally relents only to discover her sister has grabbed him first’. (25 words) That’s a ten minute movie. (It can also be a 90 minute movie)

Character Driven films to watch out for:

Garden State - Dir Zach Braff - starring Zach and Natalie Portman-
We Don’t Live Here Anymore – Dir John Curran starring Mark Ruffalo Naomi Watts
Girl on a Bridge – (French) Vanessa Paradise
Delicatessan - (French) Caro – Jeunet
State and Main – David Mamet
The Cooler –Dir Wayne Kramer -

© Sam North 23.09.04
Short on ideas for your movie? Check on story ideas at

Notes © Sam North at 2004

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