There are many ways of finding ideas for your own original short film. You could use an existing film, play or novel, or themes and characters from these texts, or other stimuli such as music, poetry, paintings, costumes, photographs, quotations and objects – anything that sparks your imagination!
An existing film, play, novel or short story can be a terrific starting point for the development of new ideas as the groundwork is already there for you to build on. There’s a plot, established characters, relationships and themes, all of which could be explored in greater depth or from different angles to create something new. For example, the musicals ‘West Side Story’ and ‘& Juliet’ are based on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and Baz Luhrmann simply took the exact play and relocated it in modern day America for his 1996 film of the same name. Taking a scene from Shakespeare and placing it in a completely different setting could make for an exciting short film.
You could also take the existing plot and approach it from a unique angle. Imagine ‘Blood Brothers’ by Willy Russell being told as a ‘reality show’ where a mother living in poverty has been persuaded to hand over one of her twins to a wealthy couple, to see how differently the children develop. Their lives are then televised.
The opening lines from a novel or short story can provide an excellent stimulus for a new idea, especially if the writer establishes a mystery in those first couple of sentences. For example:
- “Well, here I am again, sitting outside the Principal’s office. And I’ve only been at the school for two days. Two lots of trouble in two days! Yesterday I got punished for nothing. Nothing at all.” [from ‘Pink Bow Tie’ by Paul Jennings]
- “It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets.” [from ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen]
- “The guy’s name was Snodgrass and I could see him getting ready to do something crazy.” [from ‘Trucks’ by Stephen King]
- “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” [from ‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka]
You could focus on minor characters from an existing text, as Tom Stoppard does in his play, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’, which looks at events from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ through the eyes of two minor characters. This also gives you the basis for your plot.
Otherwise, you could keep the original characters but place them in a completely new scenario. What other passions, fears and motivations might these characters have? Hot-seating is one way to discover more about a character, forcing you to think about aspects of a character’s life or personality which may not be in the text. You can pose questions about their childhood and relationship with their parents, their greatest fears, their proudest moments and the other characters. Use the script as a basis, so if your character is an angry person, hot-seating would be a way to determine what might have happened to make them that way.
Imagine what might be going on underneath what we see or read. For example, two characters might behave very politely yet beneath the niceties they despise one another. Why might this be?
You could also improvise with characters by taking them out of the world of the play. What happens if two characters meet in the supermarket or go on an activity holiday together? A fun example of this is Taika Waititi’s short film series ‘Team Thor’  which explores what Marvel’s God of Thunder gets up to when taking a short break to Australia and moving in with an office worker.
Remember you can also create new characters in fresh settings for as the stimulus for your film idea. After all, human beings are endlessly mysterious and fascinating in themselves, and who knows what goes on behind those ordinary faces on the street… What dark secret does the smiling bus driver hide? What makes the school bully cry when no one else is looking? What does the strict teacher get up to when school is done for the day?
Another basis for a story idea can be choosing an everyday character, putting them in an unusual setting, and then figuring out why they’re there. For example:
- Character: A lollipop lady
- Setting: A police station
- Why the character is there: She’s been accused of trying to kill the local schoolkids by deliberately leading them in front of cars. Did she do it? Why? Or is there another explanation?
Either begin with a list of key themes within a text you’ve already studied or choose one from a wider list (you could even take a ‘lucky dip’ approach and simply pick one from a hat). Here are some suggested themes you could use as a stimulus: class (rich vs poor), peer pressure, bullying, 21st century masculinity, opposites attract, nature vs nurture, fate.
Once your theme is chosen, ask yourself questions about it to spark an idea for a film. For example, looking at the theme of 21st century masculinity, you could consider what this means, how it might be demonstrated, who might be resistant to it… You could then make a film about a clash between two male characters, one of whom has a more old-fashioned idea of masculinity, or a boy educating his father on a new way to behave, or a group of male friends struggling with their different ideas of how to be “masculine” around girls.
Choosing a genre can be an easy way to stimulate a story idea, as these contain certain expected characters, settings and events. Even setting an existing story within a genre can add an extra dimension to it.
Simply decide which genre you’d like to work within: war, western, fantasy, romance, sport, crime, ghost story, adventure, science fiction… (Be wary of the horror story and comedy – there’s a reason there are a lot of terrible horror and comedy films out there. They’re really hard to get right!)
Once you’ve chosen the genre, make a list of genre conventions – typical characters and behaviours, time and place settings, and story events – that tend to appear in texts from the genre. Then choose the ones you are going to use – or perhaps subvert!
Allowing inspiration to come from a piece of art or a photograph can be an excellent starting point. Hand out a selection of pictures to the class and get them to answer the following questions:
- What are the first words that come into your head looking at the picture? How does it make you feel?
- Who is the most important person in the picture? What are they looking at / doing / thinking / feeling?
- What is happening in the scene? What is about to happen? Why is the most important person there? How do they feel about what they see?
Poems can make for excellent short films. Due to their length, they can contain a very short, yet profound, story that can be told in a few minutes on screen, or they can simply be audio-visual explorations of a symbol or emotion.
Some poems that could make for interesting and evocative films are ‘Stealing’ by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Blessing’ by Imtiaz Dharkar, ‘Brothers’ by Andrew Forster and ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allen Poe and ‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy. But, of course, there are countless more!
The 48 Hour Film Festival is an event held every year for filmmakers, in which they are given four stimuli – a genre, a character, a prop and a line of dialogue. They then have 48 hours to plot, write, film and edit the entire film. There are two examples of films from this festival on Screening Shorts.
- Route de Sorte: Genre – Mystery; Character – Nico (chocolatier); Prop – A bottle; Line of dialogue – “Because of Brexit”.
- The Hardest Hobbit to Break: Genre - Fantasy / Fish out of water; Character - Dr McKenzie Menendez; Prop – Popcorn; Line of dialogue - "I love you".
Use the stimuli from these films or come up with your own and assign them to the class. (They can have more than 48 hours to make their films though!)
Other ideas for stimuli
A short title that presents many ideas: The Discovery, The Chase, The Robbery, The Murder, The Battle, The Assassin
An opening line: “What did you do?!”; “Something’s wrong.”; “Well, that was certainly unexpected.”.
An object or concept: shoes, a clock, rain, an empty house, prayer, courage
Establishing an emotion then figuring out what caused it or what happens next:
- He was so angry. He just wanted to hit something but knew he couldn’t.
- He was so embarrassed. He had just broken wind and everyone had heard it.
- She was very confused and needed the teacher - but the teacher wasn’t paying attention.
It can be hard for young people to get their head around planning and plotting a short film, mostly due to exposure to novels and feature films rather than short films or stories. Aside from showing them a selection of suitable films before they make their own, here are some rules to follow to make sure their ideas don’t become too big and overwhelm them:
- The plot should be simple and based around a single problem faced by the main character.
- There should only be one, or maybe two, main character(s) in your story. Minor characters should be kept to a minimum and are not that necessary.
- The length of time that events take place in should be quite short. From about 10 minutes at a minimum, to no more than one week.
- Place settings should also be kept to a minimum, with most of the action taking place in one setting.
A good short film has a fairly simple storyline. It consists of:
- an opening which establishes character and/or setting
- a problem faced by the main character
- development of the problem adding detail, tension or a complication
- a climax where there’s a confrontation or revelation
- resolution of the problem
Once a basic theme, genre, object etc. has been chosen, place it in the centre of a mind map and capture any and all ideas that come to mind. Don’t pick and choose at this stage – write down everything. Then start eliminating, choosing, connecting what is there.
Don’t forget your audience in all of this. Decide what you want the audience to experience and how you want them to feel when watching the film. This will help you work together towards a common goal and shape the piece.
Remind the class that the planning stage is always the longest part of any film production: films typically take three months to film, 12 months to edit…and anywhere between two to ten years to plan! Their patience will pay off when they have a fabulous film to show everyone.