I remember clearly the scandalized screams that came out when director Matthew Harrison gave us a list of elements we could not use in our short films for his class on directing.
Back then I thought he was exaggerating when he said that until he put those rules, every student short film had one or several of them in it.
Now that I regularly receive emails with links to short and longer films to watch, and see how many of them abuse of these elements, I am grateful for his rules and advice that made us conscious of the storytelling shortcuts too may beginning filmmakers use and that pushed us to go one step further.
So, based on my memories of Harrison’s list, and updated with some of my personal pet peeves, here are 9 cliched elements I urge you never to use in your first short film.
(There are more elements that could be added, including all attempted references to Jean-Luc Godard, but I had to start somewhere… If you have some of your own, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments section.)
9 Elements to Ban From Your (First) Short
To recap the nine elements are (in no particular order):
– Red Roses
– Red Dresses
– ‘Mysterious’ Suitcase
Why You Should Avoid These 9 Elements
So you might wonder why?
After all, I illustrated this list of cliched elements to banned with films that did a great job at using them. Isn’t it the proof that they are awesome to put in your short film?
And here are three reasons why:
#1 – If You Can’t Top It, Stay Away From It
Precisely because these elements have been used amazingly well by great filmmakers, and are part of our collective imagination, you put yourself in a delicate situation.
Can you top that? Can you show guns in a way that is different and that brings something visually? Can you film these elements in a way that looks original, inspiring and adds something to the story?
If you can, you will get noticed. But if you are just replicating what you’ve seen through someone else’s story, it will show. Which is not to say that you should never use those elements, but if you’re still searching your style, maybe don’t tackle the biggest challenge there is: find an original way to show overused elements. Which brings me to the second point…
#2 – You Should Tell Stories Within a Universe You Know
It took me a long time to understand what talk about what you know meant.
I kept wondering, how can you do fiction if you are stuck with what you know? Don’t tell me Aronofsky went on a drug-inducing journey, or Fincher went on fighting random dudes in the street to make their films? Of course they didn’t.
Write about what you know means essentially to tell a story integrating elements you are familiar with (whether they are character’s dynamics, settings, props etc.) and that you know so well, you can create a world that feels organic, rings true, and where you can develop the fictional part of your story.
After watching many short films with one to nine of the elements above, I can’t help but wonder: did I miss something during my childhood? Is it possible that that many filmmakers went to see kind-but-broken-prostitutes and had access to guns? Again, if you’ve happened to have lived in a brothel, take cocaine for breakfast and worked as a ballerina during weekends, then by all mean, tell your story the way only you can. Otherwise, put those elements on hold and try to find out what you want to tell, and how you can tell it in a way that rings true. Which brings me to the third point (amazing transitions here!)…
#3 – The Best Way to Find Your Voice is To Go Upstream
This site is about storytelling. If you’re here, I’m going to assume that you want to find ways to nurture and express what you feel you have within you in a unique way.
Those nine elements are overused on a weekly basis by filmmakers, having them won’t set you apart.
A good way to find out if these elements have a reason to be seen in your story is to use a very simple technique (borrowed from Tim Ferriss) : ask yourself why, three times.
Why do you want a gun in your story? > Because AAAA. > Why AAAAA? > Because BBBBB. > Why BBBBB? > Because CCCCC.
At that point hopefully you’ll have realized that either the gun is not necessary, or that you can tell the same thing differently.
Michel Gondry said that he always disregard the first idea that comes to his mind because it’s the most obvious one, the one that anyone can come up with. Your voice awaits in the third, fourth or fifth layers of ideas. Challenge yourself.
If you’re working on a short film, or even just a film really, and you realize you have these elements in your story, take a step back and ask yourself if there’s a reason why they are here.
And maybe consider giving yourself a creative challenge not to use them to tell the same story. After all, short films are small creative exercises to help us take risks and try new things, so why not do it now…
Food for thoughts…