How To Come Up With Short Film Ideas
OK, you want to make a short film. You’ve got camera gear, editing software – you’ve even got a few actor friends who have agreed to be in it. Now, what is this short film going to be about? I’m ready to go. Why can’t I come up with good short film ideas?
It’s a feeling that everyone has many times, and definitely one that I seem to have all the time: when your raring to make a short film, but just can’t think of something worthwhile making. It’s frustrating because all you really want to do is switch on those lights, hit record and make some magic. But I just don’t know what’s going to happen in front of the lens when I say “action.”
Keep It Short (But It Could Make A Really Good Feature Film!)
Another problem that I have is actually coming up with an idea and then thinking, “Wait a second, this could be an awesome feature film!” And then I go into world-building mode and start fleshing out a larger story. I’ve really tried to hold myself back from doing this because in my opinion, and many others, feature films and short films are and should be quite different.
A short film should really tell a small, self-contained story. It should really be one scene, or one idea or theme. Feature films can tell long, complex stories with a mixture of related themes and philosophies. But a short really has an opportunity to say something about a specific topic. Not to say that short films can’t have complex stories and multiple themes, but I’ll touch on the “keep it simple stupid” idea later on…
So yes, it’s very hard and sometimes seems impossible to actually come up with an idea for your short. However, there are many techniques for helping to stimulate the creative juices and the following list are my favourites.
11 Tips For Coming Up With Great Short Film Ideas
1. Build On Your Own Life Experiences
Think back on your life. What happened to you at school? Have you played sport? Have you had some major event take place in your life? How can you turn that into a story? Can you take a small part of that and expand on it somehow?
Do you have any interesting friends? Characters are usually the driving force of a story so interesting, quirky or unique characters can sometimes create their own story once you’ve found them. Think of your friends, colleagues, teachers, childhood acquaintances – even the random people you might meet on the street.
Don’t just think of your own life experiences. What about your family? Has your grandma done something interesting. Maybe way back through your family line, something extraordinary happened. Ask your parents, aunts or uncles, or cousins.
The word “sonder” has been coined as:
the realisation that each random passerby is living a life that is just as vivd and complex as your own. – John Koenig. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkoML0_FiV4
Everyone has their own story. See if you can find pieces of it and develop it into a narrative.
2. What If…
What if you didn’t come to work today, but instead you randomly jumped on a train to Montauk? Or what if the person at the store’s cash register somehow recognised you and knew everything about you, but you had no idea who that person was?
Take any everyday situation and ask yourself, “What if something different had happened?”, opposed to watch actually happened. Or someone different came along. Or what if that thing had never happened? You’d never met that person? You never saw that traffic accident?
3. Read Short Stories
Short stories quite often make great short films. Yes, the written word can be more expressive, emotional, and within a character’s thoughts, but that doesn’t have to stop you from adapting into a video format. Short stories quite often revolve around one or two characters, a specific situation or theme, and quite often they’ll include some kind of twist, or interesting ending. The perfect makings of a short film.
Remember that there is copyright in short stories, as in any creative works. So if you want to actually adapt the short story you’ve read, you’ll have to contact the rights holder. But maybe a short story can inspire you to write a short film using similar themes.
4. Brainstorm Sesh!
You could use all of these listed tips in a brainstorming session, but I wanted to list it as a technique to use anyway. Give yourself a timer (5, 10, 15 minutes) and just start writing down anything you can think of. And write things down in any way you wish: maybe it’s a mind map, maybe it’s a list of random ideas, maybe it’s a stream of consciousness – maybe just draw pictures!
See what pops up. Do any ideas stick out? Maybe some of them are related and you can join them together to create a bigger idea?
Darious Britt, a filmmaker over on his YouTube channel D4Darious has a great video on brainstorming and techniques for coming up with ideas (some of them very similar to my own tips!). Check his video out to see how he does it.
5. Watch The News
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and it seems especially these days that the news is very strange. There are all sorts of things happening all across the world that could make incredible films.
Now, you’ll have to just be inspired by real life events – unless you want to go and buy the life rights of the people involved – but you can be inspired by real world happenings. Maybe a group of adventurers get stuck in a cave – not in Thailand – but in Australia, and have to ration their food until rescue.
What if – there’s that ‘what if’ again – what if there was a school election between the class clown and the best student in school and they forced to debate each other? Watch TV news, listen to the radio, read newspaper/magazines. See what inspires you and then perhaps use the next technique on this list…
6. Flip It!
Take something, then flip it. Make it the opposite of what actually happened. What would Trump be doing if Hilary had won the election? What if aliens landed on Earth but weren’t carbon based lifeforms, but instead made of metal?
Or use the classic “fish out of water” technique. Take a character and put them where they don’t belong. For example, one of Santa’s elves has to travel to New York City. Or a teenager from the 1980s must travel back in time to the 50s. What conflict can flipping situations like this create?
7. Watch Other Films (Especially Classic Cinema)
How will you know your own medium if you don’t watch other films (I assume you all watch other films because you’re interested in filmmaking, but do it more!). So watch as much as you can. Consume as much as you can. See what other filmmakers have done. What techniques to they use? What themes do they seem interested in and how do they shape a story around that?
Quentin Tarantino learned all his filmmaking knowledge from working in a video rental store and watching them all when no one was around. You can too. And don’t just watch the good stuff, the Oscar-winning films. Watch the bad stuff! Watch the stuff you’ve never heard of. Even in bad films, there can be good ideas, or cool or interesting ideas, that you can take, develop and work into your own story. Star Wars was based on on Flash Gordon serials combined with Japanese samurai films. George Lucas probably wouldn’t have come up with it if he hadn’t been watching them.
8. Consume Other Mediums (Games, Books, Comics, Other)
I guess this really just follows on from the previous tip, but do consume other media as well – not just films. There are some amazing stories being told in video games, books, comics, online video. People are creative and stories are popping up all over the place. My favourite type of story medium is transmedia, or alternate reality games, whereby the story is told over multiple different formats, sometimes hidden away that you have to discover for yourself. Maybe more on that topic later…
But don’t just limit yourself to films. Start reading, viewing, consuming as much as possible. Inspiration can come from anywhere!
9. Limit Yourself
This might seem counter-productive, but I definitely think it helps. Instead of trying to pull an idea out of thin air, limit your options for the story so that there is a more defined goal. For example, think of an idea with only two characters, who are only in one setting. Two people in a room – that’s your limitations. What could they be doing?
Maybe you only have access to one room, so your film has to be like that. You only have access to two actors, so your film can only have two characters. Does a friend of yours have an awesome prop that you want to use? Limit yourself to come up with an idea with that specific prop.
There are some film festivals, like Tropfest, or the 48 Hour Film Project, where limitations are given to you and must make a film suing those limitations. Some of those films are incredible and their ideas are nothing short of amazing. Limiting yourself sometimes means your creativity really has a chance to shine through.
You’ll have to be a little bit sneaky about this, but listen to other people. Everyone has a story to tell, and some of then can be quite interesting. Going back to sonder, the realisation that everyone leads a life just as complex and interesting as your own, even strangers in the street can be a source of inspiration to you.
Next time you’re in a cafe, try and listen to what the people around you are talking about. Whatever it is, there will be some form of story in it. Someone is telling their friend about what happened at work. A couple might be dreading going to see their family for dinner. A customer is talking about how bad the coffee tastes today.
Hear something interesting; write it down! Take what you hear and play with it, develop it, turn it into something. Don’t forget your notebook, which you should take where you go!
11. Digital Detox
Finally, if you’re still struggling to come up with something, give yourself a digital detox. Leave your computer, leave your phone at home, take off your smart watch and go for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Take 20 mins, half an hour, or go for longer. Go sit in the park or a cafe, or walk along the beach.
Just experience the world and the area you live in. See what’s around you. Have a look at the landscape, your environment. Listen to people (eavesdrop). Don’t go looking for stories, but rather just take a load off and experience life. Ideas and inspiration often hit when you aren’t specifically trying to think of something so try emptying your mind.
Once you’ve had lived a little, come back and try again!
Now Start Brainstorming… Then Writing!
So these are the techniques that I use when I’m struggling to think of ideas. I’ve got two final bonus tips for you though, so don’t click off the page just yet.
One: always carry a notebook. Whether this is a physical notebook (like my favourite the Moleskine Pocket) or a note-taking app on your phone, you should always have something to write ideas on. Inspiration can strike you at any moment: driving to work, on the bus, in the shower, and you’re going to want to write it down as soon as possible. Now, don’t write and drive, but get that idea on paper as soon as possible. Ideas are slippery eels and they can get away from you if you give them the opportunity.
And two: Keep It Simple, Stupid, or K.I.S.S. You’ve probably heard this many times before, but it really does go hand in hand with short filmmaking. Some of the best short films I’ve seen are incredibly simple: a man writes to a newspaper and has to compete with another writer etc. A simple film can tell a powerful story. It can still be interesting and entertaining. Because you don’t have as much for an audience to focus on, they’ll really be able to get into your story.
So try them out and see what works for you. Let me know what works and what doesn’t. And if you have a story-generating idea that you like to use, keep doing that! Even better, let me know what it is so I can try it out!
Supported by the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, an Australian Government initiative.
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