Perfect Short Film Structure: How Successful Short Films Structure Their Story

18 February 2011

You have the technical skills to create a short film, but are trying to get your head around storytelling and structuring your story? Thinking about how to write a short film?

Learn how successful short films and even most of todays feature films structure their 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 9 important parts, that you can use as a short film structure template to base your own story on:

  1. Introduction 
    The main character is introduced. He is spending an ordinary time with nothing out of the ordinary happening.
  2. Building Empathy
    The main character has a flaw. He 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. Turn of Events
    Something unpredictable happens, that disturbs the characters’ ordinary life.
  4. Call to Action
    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. Personal Growth
    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.

Short Film Story Structure

Short Film Story Structure

Lets make an example.

  1. Introduction 
    Our main character is a Knight. He lives an ordinary life.
  2. Building Empathy
    He has a flaw: he likes flowers, sets off every morning to pick some and braids them into his horses mane.
  3. Turn of Events
    The princess is kidnapped from her tower!
  4. Call to Action
    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 Quest
    The Knight rides off, and faces several challenges. He climbs mountains and crosses deep rivers, battles thieves and fights bears.
    But nobody believes in him, because he rides a horse that looks like a flowerpot! Everywhere he goes, he is laughed at.
  6. The Crisis
    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. Personal Growth
    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. Showdown
    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 Resolution
    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.

Of course this is only a basic setup to get you started. Adapt it to best fit your own story, shuffle parts around, add new parts or omit some. You are the Storyteller.

Here are some great short films I keep coming back to, that have great sotrytelling and utilize some of what we learned in this post about story structure:

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

Alex - post author

Hi, I am Alex, a passionate Director and 3D Generalist currently working in an Animation Studio.

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Warren
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Thanks, that was beautiful!!

Me
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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… Read more »
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