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Story Outline & Sections

Short Film Story Outline Structure

Out of all the types of screenplays, short films are a little special in that they have such a wide range of possibilities that they can achieve in terms of intent, impact, and execution.  Basically, they can do a lot in a little bit of time! 

The main objective for a short film is to quickly and effectively “hit” the core idea / intention of the screenplay, and get out as quickly as possible.  How quickly?  The short answer is: as quickly as possible.  Here is some further perspective:

First, a reminder of the intended length of short films:  per the definitions of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the length of short films tops out at 40 minutes.   Any project longer than that would be considered feature length.   However, it can be said that in the industry when anyone talks about a “short film” the commonly-held understanding is that the majority of short films fall under the 15 minutes or less range. 

Why is length of the short important?  Because it affects how we look at the overarching storytelling structure.  We’ll get to that a little later.  First it’s important to make an important choice for the screenplay, and that’s what the structure will be. 

Common Story Structure vs. Custom Story Structure for Short Films

The first distinction to understand when writing (or viewing) short films is to know whether they are narrative stories or more experimental in construction. 

Narrative stories are what we are most accustomed to seeing in entertainment – they tell a cohesive tale and generally follow 3 Act Story Structure (see below).  They have a beginning, middle, and end to their narrative.  On Open Screenplay, we call this “Common Story Structure.” 

More experimental screenplays (of any length) do not need to employ the 3 Act Story Structure, and in general try to capture a new experience through other aspects of visual presentation.  A few examples of these types of short films can be ones that use non-sequiturs, ones that evoke specific emotions through the use of visuals and sound but don’t have plot points, and “fever dream” projects.  Usually, experimental screenplays utilize a more free-form way of presenting these experiences, and on Open Screenplay we call this “Custom Story Structure.”  As the name implies, there is no specific definition for this type of storytelling, and on the platform you have the freedom to decide how short films utilizing Custom Story Structure will be written. 

Common Story Structure for Short Films

Most short films (and most screenplays in general) utilize the common, 3 Act Story Structure.   This simply means they are structured to tell a tale that has a beginning, middle, and end.   Here are Open Screenplay’s definitions for Acts within short films:

Act 1: Beginning - In short films, Act 1 can either perform the usual functions associated with storytelling structure (introduce Protagonist and setting) or can simply be the opening of your short film.  Generally, Act 1 in short films grabs the audience’s attention and quickly establishes what we need to know before Act 2 starts. Depending on the length of the short film, Act 1 can be multiple scenes, a single scene, a few lines of dialogue, or even a single moment.

Act 2: Middle - In short films, Act 2 can either perform the usual functions associated with storytelling structure (Protagonist pursues a goal, usually with the help of an Influencing Character and obstacles from an Opponent) or can simply be the middle of your short film.  Generally, Act 2 in short films is the longer part of the story that pays off the core idea and genre of the short.

Act 3: End - In short films, Act 3 can either perform the usual functions associated with storytelling structure (the Protagonist battles the Opponent to achieve the goal) or can simply be the ending of your short film.  Generally, Act 3 in short films has a climactic or “big” payoff of the core idea shown in Act 2. 

Another way to think of this structure for short films is:  setup, expansion, and payoff.  Whether this is a single idea or a more complex story, this serves as an analogy to the definitions of Acts 1, 2, and 3 of short film story structure. 

Acts and Lengths

So how much screen time does each Act represent?

The easiest and most long-standing way to think of how much time each Act takes in any 3 Act storytelling structure is as follows:

Act 1 = 25% of the story

Act 2 = 50% of the story

Act 3 = 25% of the story

But it’s important to note that in general, Acts 1 and 3 can be a little shorter in length than Act 2, especially for modern audiences, who are more accustomed to getting to the adventure of the story more quickly.  Therefore, many modern stories’ percentages usually end up being closer to:

Act 1 = 20% of the story

Act 2 = 60% of the story

Act 3 = 20% of the story

So what does this mean in terms of short film lengths?  Good question!

The cool thing about these percentages is that they can apply to any story that utilizes 3 Act Structure, no matter how long or short the story is.

Whether you have a 40 minute short or a 15 minute short or even a 3 second short (it’s possible), the percentages can apply.   Here are some examples of how shorts of different lengths would break down in terms of timing for each Act:

Screenplay length

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

1 minute

5 minutes

10 minutes

15 minutes

30 minutes

12 seconds

1 minute

2 minutes

3 minutes

6 minutes

36 seconds

3 minutes

6 minutes

9 minutes

18 minutes

12 Seconds

1 minute

2 minutes

3 minutes

6 minutes

Screenplay length

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

1 minute

12 seconds

36 seconds

12 Seconds

5 minutes

1 minute

3 minutes

1 minute

10 minutes

2 minutes

6 minutes

2 minutes

15 minutes

3 minutes

9 minutes

3 minutes

30 minutes

6 minutes

18 minutes

6 minutes


So basically, Common Story Structure applies to and scales to all stories that follow 3 Act Structure.  Cool, right?

Depending on the length, genre, number of locations, and overall approach to any short film, the number of scenes will vary in each screenplay.   So an Act can have multiple scenes, be a single scene, be a few moments, or even be a single moment.  There are tons of possibilities for short films, which is part of what makes them fun to write. 

Now that you understand how story structures work in short films, go on and make some great ones!