Ken’s Top 10: Tips for Writing a Short Script

by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

While there are many good books on screenwriting out there and tons of great advice here at LA Screenwriter, one area that gets short shrift is the art and strategy for writing shorts. This is unfortunate, because while writing and selling a motion picture or television script can seem like winning the lottery, writing a short and getting it produced is very attainable for anyone with a little talent, a little money, and technology not much more complicated than your iPhone.

Here are my ten tips for writing a short script.

1. A short film is a short film.

For practical reasons (like cost), limit your script to ten pages or less. If you want to get into film festivals, limit to eight pages or less. (Documentaries can run slightly longer if it’s a particularly weighty topic.) Nothing wrong with longer shorts, if these previous two issues are not a concern for you. If you’re just going to drop your final short on YouTube or Vimeo, who cares how long it is. That said, I see many longer shorts that could easily be cut by 30-50%.

2. Consider underused genres.

Genres such as comedy, science fiction, suspense, and animation are often overlooked. For example, film festivals see very few comedy short submissions, so if you make a good one, it’s bound to stand out.

3. Find a clever gimmick or simple dramatic moment.

Many shorts revolve around a simple, clever concept (or gimmick) or simple dramatic moment/event/incident that is developed into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Look at Lights Out for gimmick or On Time by Ted Chung for simple moment. But avoid shorts that rely solely on a twist ending. If the rest of your film is boring or lame, no one will care about your clever O-Henry-style surprise ending. Beware of trying to cram a feature film narrative into a short subject. Most shorts are brief confections.

4. Be provocative.

A provocative topic or challenging point of view can be a way to get some attention as a writer or filmmaker. For example, see the series of shorts called That’s Harassment or look at the PSA called F*ck the Poor.

5. Be compelling.

Conceive of your main character as someone we’d like, admire, or if flawed, someone we’d like to see saved. Now give them a real problem to surmount. Anti-heroes need a good reason to live and be worthy of attention in your story. Not doing so can be a rookie mistake.

6. Get your story going right away.

Too much “set up” can be a killer in a short film. Try to grab the viewers right from the start. Begin your story as late as possible into the drama of your narrative. For example, if you’re writing a six-minute horror story, don’t make the viewer/reader wait five minutes to get to the horror. You want to capture the audience’s attention right from the start and never let go. On a related note, filmmakers should avoid using opening credits in shorts. The title is enough. This problem was famously spoofed in the 1969 animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla.

7. Avoid clichés.

A lot of painful and overused tropes pop up in shorts films. My list includes: the magic of childhood, dysfunctional families, first dates, crimes gone wrong, obvious or overly familiar personal afflictions, it was all a dream, tortured artists, anything that confuses “edgy” with interesting. Avoid shorts that are personal “therapy” or a “soapbox.” This doesn’t mean politics is out of bounds, but rather, think of your short as entertainment for someone other than yourself. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with writing a personal short, but avoid being a “navel gazer.”

8. Beware of proof-of-concept shorts.

If you are writing your short as a proof-of-concept for a longer work (like a feature film or series idea), remember that it first must work as a short. Don’t let your short be held hostage to the longer work. The short version must be able to stand on its own as a complete thought. In most cases, you should avoid just shooting a scene from the longer work.

9. Don’t forget nonfiction.

Most nonfiction scripts are written after some or most of the film is shot. (Sometimes called a “paper edit.”) So before you shoot, make sure you have a solid outline and shot list that incorporates your understanding of the topic and the kind of narrative you’d like to see in the film. While “reality” doesn’t always cooperate, you have to start with a point of view if you want to shoot your subject matter economically.

10. Write for the reader.

Write your short so other people will understand it. Because short films are often personal projects where the filmmaker knows exactly what they intend, they will sometimes write their scripts in a “code” or shorthand form that only they can understand, omitting traditional screenwriting information and proper formatting. Don’t, just don’t!

~

Ken Aguado is a screenwriter, producer, and author.  His producer credits include The Salton Sea, (Warner Bros.), Sexual Life (Showtime).  His most recent films are the documentary Miracle on 42nd Street (2017) and An Interview with God (2018), which he also wrote. Ken is also the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible and author of Based On

Ken’s Top 10: Tips for Choosing a Script Concept

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by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

“What should I write?”

It’s the first question every writer asks themselves before they embark on a new project. Very often the answer to this question starts with a flash of inspiration that leads to a story the writer “just has to tell.” And while I would never want to be the guy who throws cold water on that flame, I can tell you this is not always the best plan for someone who wants to be a working professional. Inspiration alone is just too unreliable a source, unless you’re not worried about paying the bills. There are plenty of other considerations, and here are my top ten. Of course, you need not act on every one of these tips. It’s kind of like The Ten Commandments: obey six out of the ten and you still might make it to heaven. (Or did I miss that day in Sunday School?)

1. Start with a list of your four or five best story ideas.

If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. You’re a hobbyist. A list of ideas will be the pool you draw from before you decide what to write. Of course this begs the question, what qualifies as a story idea? There’s a lot of debate about this topic amongst professional writers and educators. But my suggestion is to write a compelling logline for each story idea as a pathway to figuring this out. LA Screenwriter has posted many articles on crafting a logline, and of course there’s The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the book I co-wrote with screenwriter Doug Eboch. Doug and I spend ten pages in our book describing how to craft a good logline – a good indication of how complex it can be. Ideally, a good logline will be high-concept — one that embodies both succinctness and commercial considerations. Even if your idea is not high-concept, you should be able to express it in a way that sounds compelling. If you can’t do this, toss the idea.

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2. Know your talent.

What are you best at writing? Comedy? Drama? There’s the old maxim, “Write what you know.” This doesn’t mean you can’t write a story set in space if you’ve never been an astronaut. Of course it’s possible to educate yourself about a topic. But here’s the better advice. No matter what the topic, try to bring some of your own knowledge and life perspective into your story. For example, George Lucas could have easily written Star Wars with Han Solo as the lead, and arguably that was the more obvious choice. But, having grown up in a small town, dreaming of a bigger life, Lucas chose Luke Skywalker for the lead, and that choice was much more authentic. You might think this advice is obvious, but you’d be amazed how many scripts I read where the writer seems to have no affinity for the topic or characters they are writing about. This is especially true for younger writers, where a lack of life experience can be a huge handicap.

3. Observe the marketplace.

Look at the films and television shows that are getting made and doing well, and use that as a barometer for what to choose. That’s the business you’re in. I’m not saying you should only write superhero movies, and in some ways doing so could be exactly the wrong choice. But you need to be able to justify how your story will fit into the current marketplace. I promise you that everyone in a position to produce your script will be concerned about this.

Screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) likes to say that the story you choose is like a Venn diagram. And the intersection of “what you love,” “what you can write,” and “what you can sell” is the sweet spot you’re looking for. Paul’s a smart guy. Listen to him.

4. Look for existing intellectual property, or something in the public domain.

There’s no requirement that script you write must be original. And if you’re not good at coming up with your own ideas, consider acquiring the rights to something you love and think is viable. This might be a novel, short story, comic book, or something else. Or you can find a famous story or character in the public domain and rework it into something fresh. This latter suggestion can be a great way to access something well-known for free. Here’s a great list of stories in the public domain.

5. Think like a producer.

Yes, for some of you this means losing some IQ points, but I’m sure you have a few to spare. Thinking like a producer means considering all the facets a buyer or financier will consider when it comes time to write a check. These facets include casting, locations, budget, setting, international appeal, and so on. So your epic tale about an Inuit boy growing up in 1920s Alaska probably fails this test.

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6. Think of a good title.

Some writers start with a good title and develop a story from there. This is not required, but a good, memorable title can be helpful in marketing your project. A good title tends to be either provocative, descriptive or echo/amplify some aspect of the core concept of your story. Oblique titles are not ideal. The last thing you want is an exchange like this:

Development Executive: “I read a great script over the weekend.”

Producer: “Yeah? What was it called?”

Development Executive: “Um, I forget.”

Be memorable.

7. Test market your ideas.

Always run your story ideas by your trusted friends and representatives. I know a lot of writers hate to do this, most likely because they love their ideas and don’t want someone like me telling them, “Hmmm, I don’t know….” You should fight this impulse. First, you’re not required to take the advice you get, and even if you don’t you might glean some insight. Second, the last thing your agent wants is for you to drop a completed script on their desk that they have no idea how to sell.

As for what to test market, see #1 above about learning how to craft a great logline.

8. Develop with a producer.

Related to #7 above, consider testing your ideas with the goal of developing your new script with a good producer in the mix. Of course, this assumes you know a good producer, but there are a few good reasons to find the right one. First, instead of just having a sounding board for your initial story idea, you will have someone professional to consult with all along the way. Second, when it comes time to get your script into the marketplace and produced, well, you already have someone who is vested and who will help.

One note: Before you head down this path, make sure you have an understanding between you and your producer about the nature of the working relationship. Your business relationship on the project can last years, so always consult your entertainment attorney about the content of this understanding.

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9. Learn to recognize genuine enthusiasm in others.

When you float your list of potential story ideas, learn to tell the difference between polite encouragement and genuine enthusiasm. Most of the people you enlist to help evaluate your ideas will be inclined to be polite and supportive. This does you little good if the goal is to write a killer script. What you want to see is real enthusiasm for your ideas. Believe me, when you see it, you will know.

10. Follow your passion.

At the end of the day, you must love what you write, if only to finish the damn thing. As screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama) says, “If you choose an idea you are passionate about, you will throw your heart and soul into writing it – and that means you will be most likely to do your best work.” This advice is not intended to negate the nine tips that preceded it. In fact, if you can cover some of these other bases, it’s possible it will fuel your passion for your own ideas. After all, it’s not just about the passion you feel for writing it, but also the passion you will feel when you sell your script and get it made. That’s the goal, right?

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado. LA Screenwriter readers can get 30% off The Hollywood Pitching Bible by buying here with coupon code ATWAMKK4

Ken’s Top 10: Film Industry Networking Tips

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by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

Networking – it’s a mystery. Or at least it seems to be, based on the number of times I’m asked about the topic. This might be a reflection of how impenetrable the process seems to the uninitiated, or it might just be a proxy for how hard it is to break into the entertainment industry. After all, showbiz is famously about “who you know,” and networking is one of the ways you get to know them.

In any case, I have found that the people who ask me about networking tend to fall into one of two categories (or both). The first kind of person is one for whom the social customs of showbiz just seem to be a great unknown. This is totally rational. If you’re new to the biz, why would you know it? The second kind of person is one for whom any social setting is cause for panic. Some people are just shy or uncomfortable in groups of people that number more than two. Most of my tips below are advice for the former kind of person, but it’s possible it might also help with the latter kind, if only as a confidence-builder. I hope so.

First of all, let’s make one thing very clear. Networking is not about selling your script, or getting an agent, or making deals. Yes, it’s about these things – eventually. But the main goal of networking is to meet people and form long term relationships. The sooner you understand this, the sooner your goals will seem more attainable. Here are my top ten film industry networking tips:

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1. Know Where to Go

Look for social settings that attract the kinds of industry people you want to meet. Film festivals, screenings, seminars, and various film or TV events are all obvious destinations. Night clubs, not so much. Of course you’re looking for events where established entertainment professionals mingle and are accessible. So, for example, a screening or panel event may not be ideal, unless it’s followed by a reception. One avenue people often forget about is working for, or helping organize, events or festivals. If you can find your way into working for a top event, you can often form relationships with significant people in a work setting, and that’s a great way to bond with them.

2. Know Why You’re There

Networking is work. You’re not there to party. You’re there to make new contacts. In general, networking events are not ideal places to bring a date or a spouse, especially if your date or spouse does not have the same career goals as you. You don’t bring a date to work, do you? If you do decide to bring an accomplice, have a prearranged understanding with them that allows you to “work the room” solo, meeting up at a later time. Everyone has a cell phone so this is easy to coordinate. Lastly, dress appropriately for the event, and don’t get drunk.

3. Know How to Set Goals

Set realistic goals. Think about who you hope to meet. Get lists of attendees in advance, if available, and know who they are. Who or what kind of person do you want to meet? Remember, you don’t have to meet everyone. If you get to know one or two significant people at an event, that’s a good day. You are not in the volume business. Play the long game.

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4. Know How to Approach Someone

Unless you’re a stalker, rules of etiquette apply. If the person of interest is talking to someone else, wait patiently for an opening and don’t interrupt. When the person you want to meet is available, ask if you may speak to them. If they say yes, introduce yourself politely and briefly. Tell them your name and what you do. “I’m a film student at USC,” or “I’m a filmmaker who just completed their first feature,” or “I’m a screenwriter” is enough. Do not tell them your life story and don’t pretend you are their best friend. Know what you’re going to say before you approach them. Which brings me to the next tip…

5. Know Something

Be knowledgeable about industry news and who’s who. Know about movies and television. Be interesting. Have a point of view, but stay away from politics and religion. Be an expert in the field you want to pursue. Lastly, be prepared for the question, “So, what are you working on?”

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6. Know What Not to Ask

Do not ask the people you meet to read your script or look at your film, and do not hand them a resume. In fact, don’t bring any of those things to events, unless it’s required by the event itself. Don’t ask for any favors when you first meet someone.

7. Know How to Ask for Help

Instead of asking for favors, here’s a trick: The best strategy is to ask for “advice.” So, for example, “Can you offer any advice about how I can get people to read my script?” is better than “Can you read my script?” If you master this approach, you will be amazed how well it works and the doors it might open.

8. Know When to Move On

Read the signals and know when it’s time to say thanks and goodbye. Ask the person you’re talking to if you can write to them with a follow up question or two. Most people will say yes, even if they have no intention of replying. If they say yes, ask for their business card or email address. You can give them your card too, but always ask first. Networking events are not an excuse to hand everyone you meet a business card.

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9. Know How to Follow Up

Follow up with the people you meet. Send them a “thank you” or “nice to meet you” note. Don’t overwhelm them with emails, questions, jokes, or anything, um, inappropriate. Friend them on Facebook or Linkedin. Let the relationship take its natural path. If the relationship takes hold, ask to meet with them in their office or for a cup of coffee at some later date. Bingo, you now have a new contact in the entertainment industry.

10. Know How to Relax

Networking can be stressful for some, especially if you are the second kind of person I mentioned in my introduction. If I’m describing you, the only advice I can offer is to remember that you’re trying to do something you love. Focus on your passion for your craft and the rest will come.

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado. LA Screenwriter readers can get 30% off The Hollywood Pitching Bible by buying here with coupon code ATWAMKK4

Ken’s Top 10: Annoying Things I See In Scripts

by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

I’ve been a production executive and producer for several decades, so needless to say I’ve read a lot of scripts. Despite the mileage, I like to pride myself on having never succumbed to cynicism; I know that screenwriting is a tough job and anyone who can get the job done has my sincere admiration.

That said, I have my cranky side, and there are a handful of things I’m just tired of seeing when I read a script. I’m not just talking about bad dialogue or unclear actions and descriptions, most of which I chalk up to… let’s call it “unprofessionalism.”  No, I’m talking about the bad habits, tropes, and clichés that I see often enough for it to drive me nuts.

I’m sure you have your list, but without further delay here’s mine:

1. A female lead described as “beautiful, but doesn’t know it.”

I’ve met some beautiful women in my life. Trust me, they all know it. I’m sure this goes hand in hand with why we see so many film and television romances where the pretty gal falls for the “schlub.” Think about who’s usually doing the writing and do the math.

2. A male lead described as “struggling with inner demons.”

For some reason this character is always sitting alone at the bar, nursing a drink. My hunch is that some writers believe this makes their character sound “deep.” But to me it sounds like the only actor who is right for the role will be Mickey Rourke.

3. A screenwriter who loves the sound of his or her own voice.

Usually this manifests in dialogue that goes on and on and on. Even if the dialogue is good, I always find it a little self-indulgent. I’m talking about you, Quentin Tarantino.

4. Too much description of a character’s inner state of mind.

This is a corollary to #2, above. A little is okay, but it’s usually a sign of lazy writing. If you like to describe your characters’ inner life, such as “struggling with inner demons,” please consider writing a novel instead.

5. Characters who are not introduced or established properly.

This is mostly a rookie mistake but I see it so often I’m starting to worry I’m reading too many rookie scripts. There are rules for establishing characters for the first time in a screenplay and for establishing their presences in scenes. Learn them.

6. Characters with similar-sounding names.

This is a pretty well-known piece of advice. Kevin, Kent, and Ken don’t belong in the same script, unless it’s supposed to be a gag that we can’t tell one from the other.

7. Female characters who have a boy’s nickname.

Okay, admittedly this one is kind of petty, but you’d be amazed how often I see Samantha called “Sam,” Louise called “Lou,” and Josephine called “Jo.” It’s just trite.

8. Working-class characters who are portrayed with wildly unrealistic lifestyles.

Really, enough is enough. Unless you’re writing a script about Rupert Murdoch, please stop portraying characters who can actually earn a living in publishing. Also, characters who can afford to live in a loft or brownstone in New York City are more properly referred to as “the one-percent.”

9. Soundtrack suggestions.

Unless you’re writing a musical or a specific song is relevant to the plot, just don’t do it. And while it’s on my mind, don’t sent me your mix tape.

10. Too many suggested camera angles.

You can get away with a few if they are well-justified, but unless you are directing and financing the film yourself, be very judicious with their use. There are other ways of accomplishing the same thing without making your script read like a shot list.

Okay, so I’ve shown you mine. Please share your thoughts below.

Read more of Ken’s Top 10 lists here.

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado

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