Short films are notoriously hard to make.

It’s much easier to tell a full story with developed characters if you have 90 pages vs 10. This post is full of free short stories, but we have included the occasional affiliate link. Anything you buy clicking the links below will support our film, I’m Having an Affair With My Wife!

All about the public domain:

For some pointers on how to check whether something is in the public domain, check out this article from Stanford or this handy chart from UNC.

Even though these stories are free to be adapted and altered, it’s always best to give credit where credit is due. If you don’t, you’ll seem uncultured at best. At worst you’ll seem arrogant, in that you assume that the rest of the world is uncultured.

Also, beware the translations of foreign works. Translations are often copyrighted by publishers and translators themselves. In other words, don’t copy and paste the dialogue of a translated short story, even if you give credit and want to make a direct adaptation. Ideally you’re changing the dialogue and only using the basic plot of these stories for your idea. But if you want to do something along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (i.e. be as true to the source dialogue as possible), and you can’t find a translation that is clearly in the public domain, then try translating a work yourself. Even using Google Translate is better than risking litigation.

Moral Tales

Tolstoy’s Short Stories

Tolstoy is arguably the greatest writer in Russian history. He’s known for massive stories like War and Peace, but most Americans aren’t aware that he wrote a great amount of short stories, most of which are in the public domain and can be found for free online. But, if you really want to buy something: Tolstoy’s Short Fiction is an old textbook of mine. It contains 9 short stories (two of which are novellas) about war, death, and spirituality. It’s great for the screenwriter because this edition includes critical commentary on the stories as well as Tolstoy’s life and writing style. Start with Master and Man, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Three Deaths, but all 9 stories in this volume are worth a read.

A Feminist Murder Mystery

I think I was in 7th grade when I read Trifles, an awesome play by Susan Glaspell. It’s much easier to adapt a play into a screenplay than the prose of short fiction. So if you’re looking for convenience, this might be the work for you. Trifles tells the story of a murder that shocks a small community, and the group of women who choose to rally together to protect the “victim.”

Horror

Poe’s Short Stories for the general creep factor

It’s no secret that Edgar Allen Poe wrote some seriously creepy short stories. They’re all in the public domain and you can find most of them for free online. If you’re looking for the perfect horror short, I’d check out William Wilson and The Cask of Amontillado.

Gogol’s The Viy

If you’re looking for a supernatural horror story, check out Nikolai Gogol’s The Viy. This tale of demons, monsters, and seduction is just screaming for a retelling.

Honorable Mention – A Good Man is Hard to Find

Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story is both horrific and beautiful. In fact, it’s probably the darkest story in this list. The work explores themes of religion, morality, and the concept of absolute good and evil in a way that makes Tolstoy and Poe seem like they were writing for children. Unfortunately, it’s not in the public domain because its copyright was renewed. But it’s definitely worth the read if you want to write something visceral.

Experimental

Anything by Kafka

I like to think of Franz Kafka as the Czech J.D. Salinger. Both authors explore themes of isolation, youth, and madness, but in very different ways. Salinger’s characters experience the world intensely, but Kafka’s characters are numbed by their reality. That, mixed with the general subject matter of his work, makes Kafka an excellent candidate to inspire your next short film. Check out The Metamorphosis, and In The Penal Colony to start. If you can’t get enough Kafka, you can buy his complete works here.

Romance

Checkov for Love and Loss

I wouldn’t call Checkov’s stories romantic, but they do deal with the concept of what love is. That’s a theme we explore in our movie, and it’s a question that not enough people honestly ask. So, I’d be remiss to not add him to the list. You can buy Checkov’s short stories for under $3 on Amazon, or you can read for free. Start with Checkov’s most famous short work: The Lady and the Dog. It’s got an awesome “The Graduate”/ “Lost in Translation” vibe.

Hopefully this post has introduced you to some stories you haven’t encountered before. So many screenwriters spend their time trying to improve upon the work of writers whose talent is dwarfed in comparison to the writers on this list. If you’re going to be derivative, then base your work on some intellectual giants, not pygmies.

And, as always, share this post if you found it useful!


Photo Credit: Flowers by Jay; Horror by Moyan Brenn

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