If you work in the film industry join the Cinema Jam community Click here!

Categories: Features

Raindance’s Elliot Grove lists 19 of the best ways to brainstorm ideas for your short film, from bad grandad jokes to office pranks.


This article was originally written by Elliot Grove for Raindance. Visit raindance.org for more insightful coverage of the film industry. 

There’s three things different in the film industry from when I started Raindance in 1992:

  • in the early 90’s every film was shot on expensive celluloid. Now it’s all shot on digital.       
  • back then (remember that John Major was still Prime Minister and Princess Diana was alive?) films were distributed in cinemas and on heavily regulated broadcast television. Now internet distribution rules supreme.                                          
  • when I started Raindance I bought expensive newspaper and magazine ads. Now it’s all web adverts.

Everyone is screaming for content today: visual content. The other fact is that people’s attention spans are dropping, meaning that short films get the kinds of eyeballs that feature filmmakers dream about.

An understanding of short film idea generation is almost a carte blanche to becoming known as a filmmaker of short films with the kind of pedigree associated with Oscar™-nominated feature filmmakers. What is more, your short films can be seen by a huge number of people. That’s why we are about to launch a very special short film competition with ShortList Magazine.

Here’s the tips I have collected while working with filmmakers I meet at Raindance:

1. Seat of the pants to seat of the chair

I learned this one from Michael Hague. His Writing Screenplays That Sell was the book that got me interested in writing. A little bit every day is better than a bank holiday weekend blowout. A bit every day becomes a habit. I’ve found that a few minutes every day on my current creative project reaps more rewards then when I have to go like smoke towards a deadline.

2. Write it down

Do you remember the last time a great idea for something popped into your head? Was it when you were walking to the tube or bus stop? Or hoovering up dust bunnies? If so, it’s because you were most likely in Alpha State – those sweet daydream moments you slip into while you are doing something mechanical or familiar.

Do you remember what happens if you don’t immediately write those great thoughts down? Don’t they vanish into thin air? Make a habit of shoving a notebook in your pocket so the next time you have a great idea you can simply write it down.

3. Write about yourself

Have you ever been in a situation where you sit and remark to yourself that ‘this could’ve been a movie?’ Sometimes our own lives are as interesting and entertaining as the movies. Make sure you write them down.

4. Bad granddad jokes

I was once in Sweden when a Norwegian filmmaker asked me to watch his short – in Norwegian. Of course when it was over he asked me how it was. I told him it was beautifully shot but I had no idea what it was about because I don’t speak Norwegian. He then translated the movie and it was sweet, tender and very funny. It was, he explained, based on a joke his granddad had told him.

Maybe those bad granddad jokes will inspire you too. The beauty of these jokes is they have a setup, i.e.:

Have you ever had a …

Then a story arc: Let me tell you about a friend of mine…

And a punchline at the end.

These can make great storytelling hooks.

5. Opposites attract

Why not take an iconic story and flip the characters around? Instead of the beautiful princess kissing the frog, why not make it the handsome prince? Another flip on this would be to take a well-known movie and reverse the characters. In Witness for example, rather than having Harrison Ford going to the Amish community as he is pursued by the Mafia, why not make it the story of the 12 year old boy who travels to Philadelphia and is corrupted by the Mafia.

6. Reverse budgeting

Robert Rodriguez did this with great style when he made El Mariachi – his famous first film. He made a list of all the stuff he could get cheap, the actors he knew and the locations he could get for free and then he cooked up the story based on the fact that his actor had a dog and could play the guitar.

7. Confinement stories

Create two characters and put them in a location they can’t leave and see what happens.

8. Look it up, then make it up

Research is a great way to find ideas. Make a list of your favourite theories or ideas and research them. I’m sure that some great ideas will pop up.

Here’s a great research tool our MA/MSc partner Staffordshire University has compiled.

9. The ‘What if…?’

I use this tool a lot. I take a simple everyday thing, like the keyboard I write this on, and add the ‘what if ?’ and see what happens. So I could say something about my keyboard like this:

What if the newest and deadliest virus is transported on the internet and what if you can get it by connecting to the intent with your keyboard?

10. Watch movies

Watching other peoples’ shorts is a surefire way to get inspired. Watch great short films and then see if you can use their ideas and approaches to come up with your own ideas.

Here’s 10 x 15 second shorts our community made for Nokia to demonstrate the fact that their phones could take video.

Here’s 28 brilliant shorts you can watch in the time it takes to eat lunch.

Can you find something here that inspires you? Can you get some ideas that you can bend, blend and mix into something else?

11. My day

Don’t we each wake up, get ready and leave for work? Do you arrive as planned? Or leave as planned? What are the types of incidents that could change your normal day or your life? People would find this interesting.

12. Read the newspaper

The newspaper is full of incidents which can make it into the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ category. Often these news snippets can be combined and interchanged to come up with refreshingly original ideas.

When Roger Corman, the King of Independent Cinema, visited Raindance in 1996, he would show up at my office with the morning newspapers. He tore keywords out of the headlines and scrambled them up on my desk until he saw what would make a good headline for a movie. When he saw one he liked he would handwrite the title out and fax it to his graphics honcho in LA. A few hours later artwork would appear on my fax which he’d take and show local British distributors. If enough people liked it, he’d go back to LA, find a screenwriter to write the script represented by the poster, and make the film.

It was such an exercise he conducted in 1955 that spawned his feature The Fast And The Furious, from which an entire franchise was born.

13. National or religious holidays

In a short film you don’t have time to set up the scene. The advantage of using an iconic moment like Christmas, the Christening, weddings and funerals is everyone knows exactly where you are. You can use this tool to kick off just about any story idea and add in a twist that takes it out of the ordinary and clichéd.

14. K.I.S.S.

Keep It Simple Stupid. Especially on your first few shorts. Attempting the complex and complicated is a great goal. But if you set a goal like that and fail it could destroy your confidence. Remember, too, that some of the world’s best ideas are the simplest.

15. Spoof and parody

Making fun of people or entertainment icons is another way you can come up with ideas. What is core, is your parody film is generally free from libel and defamation actions from politicians, business leaders or celebrities that you are taking the mickey out of. If you think you are walking near the legal line please consult an entertainment lawyer.

16. Local legends

Rory O’Donnell, our film course director, gave me this and the next tip. He has sometimes made short films documentary-style about the local legend. And local legends don’t need to be international giants. They can be known in their own community, no matter how small, as the guy or gal who can do something well.

17. Press random article on Wikipedia

Rory also writes and shoots short films regularly. Sometimes he pushes ‘Random Article’ on Wikipedia to see if anything useful or inspiring pops up.

18. Newsjacking

This is one of my favourite ploys to create clickbait and interest in something I am doing. There is no reason why you can’t do this too.

This year during Wimbledon, every Brit wanted Andy Murray to win Wimbledon. Of course, he didn’t. But I newsjacked it by writing an article called 7 Lessons Filmmakers Learn from Andy Murray.

Can you think of a trending topic that would inspire you?

19. Office pranks

Do you remember the last time your office mates pulled a fast one on you? Maybe this is a situation that you can recreate as a short film. Here’s 10 classic office pranks that never age. Why not re-stage one of these and film it as a short film.

Fade Out

Now a word about writer’s block.

When you are jammed remember that there is no such thing as lack of talent. I want to explode the talent myth.

When you are jammed it is solely down to your confidence. Or lack of it. How do you build confidence? Stop moaning. Stop hanging around feeling sorry for yourself. Just do it.

Did I miss anything? Leave it in the comments box below, or ping me an email elliotgrove@raindance.org.


This article was provided by Raindance, the UK's leading independent film festival and one of Europe's top film training providers. Find more articles, videos and indie film related content on their website, www.raindance.org.

Posted on Nov 2, 2015

One Response to “19 Great Ways to Brainstorm Short Film Ideas”
Read them below or add one

  1. I appreciate the advice about writing down good ideas from your life or an experience you had in a notebook. This summer I want to get started filming a short film that I can submit to Sundance since it’s always been my dream. I’ll have to take these brainstorming ideas into consideration as I continue to look for feedback and inspiration during this whole process.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked by *.

Recent Comments

  • Avatar everly was a great movie back in 2014. Most of the people rated it as an av...
  • Avatar Salma hayek is a great actress, i cannot forget her perforamance in desper...
  • Avatar I loved this movie but Salma eating dragons heart was not fancy :)...