Due to their short format, short film storytelling is not the same as feature film storytelling. If one tries to compress an hour and a half plus of quality character and conflict development into a fraction of the time, it's not going to ring true to the audience.
Let's start with what we desire to achieve with storytelling. In most respects, it is convey and idea of change. Change in a character, change in the environment, change in society, etc. Creation stories are a fantastic example of this. Existing in nearly all cultures, the mode of storytelling was used to describe how the world came to be from how began.
Why focus on change? Change is compelling. In storytelling, change can even be considered synonymous with compelling. There’s nothing compelling about an absolutely static character, place, and time.
Since short films are so short, what kind of change can we use to craft our stories? I’ve come up with a few narrative strategies work well. While this is no an exhaustive list by any means, it's a good start.
This hinges on two aspects: setup and payoff (or punchline, in this context). Characters tend to be archetypal so we can immediately, innately, understand their purpose in the story. A priest looks like a priest and for our purposes in setup is just a priest (this assumption on part of the viewer can be subverted in the punchline later for great effect). Everything in the story serves to build up a punchline that, while not needing to be “funny”, is typically ironic in nature.
A classic example of this is The Gift of the Magi, a short story by O. Henry. The setup of the story has two characters encountering hardship and resistance (don’t forget to really challenge your protagonists!) to buy each other Christmas gifts. Della sells her hair, and James sells his pocketwatch. The irony, and thus the payoff/punchline, is revealed when they discover that they bought each other gifts pertaining to what they had sold to buy the gifts in the first place (hair combs for Della, and a watch chain for James). Although tragic in this example, the story still fits the narrative strategy of the Joke.
This is one of the best ways to give a short film the kind of character-driven narrative we see in feature films, which show the changing of a character (usually the protagonist). However, since in the short format we don’t have time to show a character change fully, we include a moment in the story where that change begins. This moment is the realization: something happens which prompts a change in the character. We don’t necessarily see how the character changes (especially not over time), but we see the beginning of that change.
This approach is used to great effect in one of my absolute favorite short films, Lynne Ramsay’s Gasman. The entire film builds up to young Lynne realizing that her father’s world doesn’t revolve around her, and she is not the only apple of his eye. By choosing this moment to display, it is implied that this experience will complicate young Lynne’s relationship with her father and other people in her life. We don’t need to see her journey into later life and how she may become distrustful and antisocial – it is here, in what is contained in her realization.
This one is bit more complicated, and draws from the previous two forms to work. In essence, the Recontextualization relies on a moment, much like the punchline or the realization, to put the events to the film into a different light. This involves setup, like the Joke and the Realization, but that setup can be much more abstract and opaque, only immediately needing to be interesting enough to keep watching, as it will gain much more significance after the end.
A great example of this is Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug. The setup is interesting, but doesn’t create any real plot or characters. However, the moment of recontexutalization, in which we realize that there are seemingly infinite levels of action above and below the mere two we have seen recontexualizes the events that have unfolded before us. Light on characters, light on plot, but containing that moment of recontextualization that makes it more than it appears. This same narrative approach was used in Nolan’s later feature Memento, in which each vignette serves to recontextualize what we have seen of the story so far (“Don’t trust his lies.”).
In short films, don’t just show things, tell stories. Give that action sequence context using the Joke to create a ironic misunderstanding with a resolution. Use the Recontextualization to make us think whether that killer in your horror short is a pawn of something more sinister. Structure your character-driven drama around the Realization to suggest the long journey of change your character has in front of them, rather than trying to cram a lifetime into fifteen minutes.