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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Toronto MU chapter.

You want to be a storyteller: touch hearts, prod curiosities and make people feel. Perhaps you’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a lightning strike idea, a story only you can tell. Perhaps that might feel like an unattainable pipe dream. You may be anxious that the promise of a brilliant idea won’t translate the way you thought it would to an audience. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for uncertainty. You try stuff out to see if you like it enough to try again. I’m still trying to figure it all out– five years into directing short films. However, there are some tricks and tools I know work for sure:

  1. Drafting Your Script
  • Take screenwriting classes! One of the best ways to learn is from a teacher who will keep you accountable to write. If you can’t attend live classes, try watching recorded masterclasses online. 
  • Before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) make a beat sheet compiling all your ideas into scenes. A script structure will emerge from here.
  • Write a draft as early as you can and share it with as many people for feedback as you can. (The best opinions are from more experienced writers and directors!)
  • Be concise! Scriptwriting is all about finding the most articulate way to get your message across on the least amount of paper.
  1. Building Characters
  • Your main character should have a single desire and flaw throughout the film that is clear to the audience. 
    • A girl who wants to ask her best friend to prom BUT is too shy to ask.
    • A boy who wants to participate in the school play BUT is afraid of judgment from friends (ahem, Troy Bolton). 
  • Your main character should have an objective to achieve that desire in each scene.
    • The girl rehearses what to say to her friend in the bathroom mirror.
    • Troy decides to audition at the last minute with Gabriella for the school musical.
  • There is conflict in each scene, whether an external or internal obstacle.
    • Someone asks the love interest to prom first.
    • Troy’s friends sabotage his relationship with Gabriella to keep him on the basketball team.
  • It either goes their way or it doesn’t. Each scene should result in a character change or relational change between characters. 
  • The main characters make the same mistakes; they keep chickening out until they don’t. The climax is the turning point when they decide to be braver, more forgiving, or stronger. 
    • The girl finally musters up the courage to “prompose” to her friend.
    • Troy Bolton chooses his true ambitions for musical theatre over his friends’ beliefs about him.
  • Characters need to change. Your protagonist can stay the same and die a tragic hero, or commit to making a wiser decision. That’s character growth, sis!
  1. Visual Style

Okay, now that you’ve written something, let’s figure out your film’s visual style:

  • Make a shot list outlining every shot you need for every scene of your film. 
    • Who’s speaking? What lines should you hone in on? Where are the important emotional beats? 
    • Right now, focus on coverage.
  • Personally, I find it helpful to make a scene-by-scene visual treatment detailing cinematography, production design (wardrobe, set decoration, props) and blocking (how actors move throughout the space). 
    • Compile ideas from your sources of inspiration (ie. other films and paintings). 
    • How can production design colours and lighting colour temperatures reflect the story? (Bland to colourful wardrobe for a character coming into themselves? Warm to cool colour temperatures for a group of kids entering a haunted house?)
    • Try to articulate through mood boards what you want each scene to feel like. 
    • Share this document with your cinematographer and production designer, and keep a copy with you while shooting.
  • Once you’ve secured your locations, go on a location scout
    • At this stage, figure out how you’d like to frame your shots in the space you have. 
    • You may realize some shots you’ve planned for aren’t feasible and think of new ones to add. 
  • Make sure your pre-production is strong enough that you’re not making major artistic decisions on set! The cinematographer and production designer should be able to handle their jobs well enough that you have a primary focus on directing actors.

4. Directing Actors

  • Take acting classes! Your actors will appreciate that you’ve learned how to communicate with them effectively beforehand.
  • Have a rehearsal or two before shooting.
    • Ask each actor what their character’s central desire and moment of transformation is (if applicable). Be open to them changing your ideas of who the characters are.
    • It may be useful to read through the script scene-by-scene, asking each actor where their strongest emotional beat is and what their objective is each scene.
    • Play through the scene. Try to figure out what feels right for you and your actors. How can you make sure the emotional beats land?
  • A mistake I was told I was making is telling the actors the complexities of their emotions rather than simply giving them something to do. 
    • Don’t tell your actor he’s been dying to find out where his roommate goes after midnight because he’s had recurring dreams they’re a vigilante villain. Tell him to probe, suspect and inquire. 
  • Find the tie between physicality and emotion through blocking. If someone didn’t speak the language of your film, would they still emotionally understand what’s going on? 
    • Imagine a scene with two actors sitting across from each other at a cafe table. What does closing a laptop, pushing a chair back, or fiddling with a pen mean? What about putting on headphones, stretching, or leaning across the table? 
    • Pull from the nuances actors have naturally. Do they twirl their hair, bite their lips, or flit their eyes away when nervous? 
  • As a director, you’re preoccupied with each character and everything else happening on set. The actors are simply focused on their own characters– listen to their ideas.

The funny thing about storytelling is that I won’t realize how I’m telling a very specific story about my life until I look back on it from a distance. No matter how removed I think I am from the subject material, striking parallels to myself and the people around me inevitably emerge. There’s always something in your psyche that demands to be seen. With each chance you take as a filmmaker, you’re a step closer to manifesting your soul on screen. 

Be brave, and remember, you’ve got this!

Nikita Zhang

Toronto MU '22

Nikita's hipster high school teachers sparked her love for slice-of-life podcasts, books, and movies. Whether oversharing through introspective conversations or scribbling journal entries, she'll do whatever it takes to make sense of life. One day, she hopes to write stories for the screen, the radio, or for print. On the side, she bakes and plays the piano mediocrely but passionately.