If you want to play baseball, you should practice hitting, running, throwing the ball, and catching as much as possible. If you want to paint, you should practice painting as much as possible. Likewise if you ant to write screenplays, you should practice writing and watching as many movies as possible.
The more movies you watch and the more screenplays you study, the more you’ll learn how to craft the best screenplay possible for your story. Watching two-hour movies can get time-consuming so as an alternative, consider studying short films instead.
Short films typically last less than an hour. In fact, the Oscar for best short film went to “Skin,” which is 20 minutes long. Although short films are easier to watch, they can demonstrate useful storytelling techniques that you can use in a longer screenplay. If you haven’t seen “Skin,” watch it on YouTube.
After watching “Skin,” you can see how scenes don’t just randomly show characters and settings. Instead, a smart script will plant setups early in a story and then pay them off much later. [SPOILER ALERT]
The biggest setup and payoff combinations occurs near the beginning when a skinhead father takes his young son out shooting with a bunch of their friends. The father bets everyone that his son can shoot a watermelon with a rifle. When the son successfully blows the watermelon apart, the father is happy and collects his bet.
The idea of the son shooting a watermelon accurately with a rifle pays off later in the end when the father returns home after being tattooed black all over his body. Then the son sees what he thinks is a black man in his house and uses his rifle to accurately shoot and kill his own father.
That’s the setup/payoff combination necessary to tell great stories. Besides setup/payoff combinations, stories all need a sense of ironic logic. In the real world, life is messy and things don’t make sense. In the artificial world of screenplay story telling, everything makes sense in hindsight.
In “Skin,” the skinhead father brutally beats up a black man in a supermarket parking lot in front of his wife and son. Later, a group of black men kidnap the skinhead father in front of his own son. As the kidnappers race away, the black son peeks out the back of the van windows to watch the skinhead son try to run after the van before giving up.
Later, this black son comes home and sits next to his dad who still has bruises on his face. This connection between the black son and his black father who was beaten, and the white son with his skinhead father enhances the connection that both men have sons.
Even though “Skin” is barely 20 minutes long, it packs every scene with meaning and purpose. There are no dead scenes or irrelevant characters or action anywhere. That’s what you need to create a compelling story. If you can’t tell a compelling story in 20 minutes, you probably can’t tell a compelling story in 120 minutes either.
So hone your skills writing short scripts. These scripts can be stand-alone stories or they can be scenes from your larger overall story. By writing intriguing, compelling short scripts, you can paste them together in a full-length screenplay that will create an intriguing, compelling 120-page script.
There should be no boring moments anywhere in your screenplay. Make every moment count and you’ll be well on your way to creating the best screenplay possible whether it’s a short script or a full-length movie.