Learn how successful short films structure their story

You have the technical skills to create a short film, but your storytelling lacks depth? Learn how successful short films and even most of todays feature films structure the story, to make it compelling to the audience.

It’s all about Storytelling

Almost all Films are based on a storytelling technique, that was first introduced by Aristotles (The Three Act Structure) and revised by Joseph Campell. Campbells theory can basically be split up into the most important parts which are:

  1. The main character is introduced. It is spending an ordinary time, with nothing special happening.
  2. The main character has a flaw. It is not perfect. The audience emphasizes with the character. The flaw also makes him more believable. This flaw can be anything; a physical imperfection, mental imperfection, habbits (good or bad), weakness, desire .. you name it.
  3. Something unpredictable happens, that disturbs the characters ordinary life.
  4. This Event calls the character to action. He has to do something to react to this event. In this stage, the character often seeks help from mentors or friends, to gather advice.
  5. The Quest. The character now has a goal, and he is pursuing it. During the quest he is challanged in several ways. The goal is harder to reach than estimated.
  6. The Crisis. The character is at his lowest moment and one step from giving up.
  7. The character learns a lesson. Often, the characters flaw now actually helps him in achieving the goal.
  8. Showdown. The character faces one final opponent/challenge.
  9. The Resolution. In a happy story, this is the part where we all celebrate ;-)

If the story is a comedy, the character will fail in the (6) Quests challenges, if it is a tragedy, he will succeed in the challenges.

Lets make an example.

  1. Our main character is a Knight. He lives an ordinary life.
  2. He has a flaw: he likes flowers, sets off every morning to pick some and braids them into his horses mane.
  3. The princess is kidnapped from her tower!
  4. The Knight is summoned by the King who tells him that the Princess was kidnapped by a dragon and that he should rescue her.
  5. The Knight rides off, and faces several challenges. He climbs mountains and crosses deep rivers, battles thieves and fights bears. But no one believes in him, because he rides a horse that looks like a flowerpot! Everywhere he goes, he is laughed at.
  6. The Knight is in crisis. He is hurt by the peoples looks, and starts to doubt his skills. He is at the lowest point in the story.
  7. On a sunny afternoon he camps at a flowery lake where little lizards are sunbathing. As he approaches them, the lizards flee, interestingly not away from him, but towards him. As he trips over a stone and while falling down sees the sea of flowers, he realizes why the lizards fled towards him. He has an idea.
  8. He faces the dragon. He does not defeat him with a sword, but with a bag full of flowers. As it turns out, the dragon is allergic :-)
  9. The princess is rescued. The Knights flaw saved her. We all celebrate.

The next time you watch a movie, try to analyze it and fit it into this commonly used structure. You will be surprised at how many movies and short films use it.

Some interesting short films to watch, that follow this structure are:

I can highly recommend the following Books and Sites for more in-depth information on this subject:

Further Reading



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  1. Warren on 15. Jul, 2012

    Thanks Alex, that was beautiful!!

  2. Me on 31. May, 2013

    Thanks, but that ‘recipe’ doesn’t cover all short film structures – far from this, since it doesn’t cover several script ideas I have.

    I think pre-cooked structures do more harm than good, to the creative mind, as they disable the creative process that would think of an awesome novel structure and they do more harm to the viewers too, as they have to watch hundreds of movies with the exact same supposedly successful ‘recipe’.

    Instead of learning a common structure, the filmmaker should learn how to innovate and produce his own novel structures at will. That would be creative and mind-refreshing for everybody.