The Nutshell Technique
Jill Chamberlain on the difference between situation and story, the Nutshell Technique, and why writers should choose the banana!
As a practiced script consultant, Jill Chamberlain has read more scripts than most individuals have seen movies. In her research, she has discovered that 99 percent of first-time writers are missing the fundamental step in writing: to tell a story.
While any basic class or beat book can encourage writers to format a script, jot down witty dialogue, or set the opening scene, these newcomers are often only writing situations rather than delivering a unique, successful story.
That’s where Jill comes in, with her book The Nutshell Technique.
I was a frustrated screenwriter. I studied with some great people in New York City; a place I lived for nearly twenty years. I still felt myself blocked as a writer. I would get comments that my work was a “situation,” but not a “story” and no one could really explain to me what that meant.
So partially out of my own frustration—and partially as a procrastination technique—I started analyzing movies. It took some time. I watched around 100 movies to come up with what I now refer to as the “Nutshell Technique.”
Later, in my work as a script consultant, I discovered that this is a problem in 99 percent of screenplays. First-time screenwriters fail to tell a story. Instead, they present a situation. Aristotle referred to a similar phenomenon, but he labeled it episodic, rather than situational.
Most screenplays are: this happens…then this happens…then this happens. But that’s not a story, that’s life. Stories are: this happens, which results in this happening, etc.
Essentially, there are eight critical story elements. Readers will find some of these elements familiar, such as the concept of “the flaw.” But, I think what is unique about my method is the interconnection and interdependency between these eight parts. I don’t know another method that comes close to that and I think these eight parts are what makes a story, rather than a situation.
That’s what makes it different from the “beat sheet” methods that are out there. Many of those have a pre-prescribed number of beats that you are supposed to hit, but they don’t deal with the interconnection of the moments within the story. So you can read all of these beat sheet methods and still end up with a situation rather than a story, because no one else is teaching the Nutshell Technique .
When I started doing my research, I wrote on one of the pages that it’s a “screenplay in a nutshell,” and the name sort of stuck. It’s now the cornerstone to the writing workshop that I teach, among other elements.
The most important aspect, again, is to tell a story rather than a situation. People may plot out 120 pages perfectly, but they fail to tell a story. With this method, we can detect that with a 1-page schematic rather than having to read the entire 120-page screenplay. It’s best to understand this upfront, rather than try and fix it afterwards, during the revision stage .
Since upcoming screenwriters are often told to “write what they know,” could this be part of the reason that many writers are telling situations rather than stories?
There are plenty of people not doing personal stories who still have the problem, but you are more likely to have the problem when writing personal stories. Life is not a story. There are lots of great movies based on true-life stories, but if you look in the credits, they say, “this is a work of fiction.” Unless you’re watching a two-hour interview with someone, you have to make choices to make the film a story.
When writing about your life, some people tend to focus too much on the facts. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not a documentary. Lots of people want to base their screenplays off something that has happened to them, but the method applies for both real and fictional stories.
Many will say, “This is what really happened,” but you need to make those choices to find the elements that will make the most satisfying story. Audiences can tell and readers can feel that this is a situation. They will not care about the characters if the story elements are not lining up.
Many upcoming writers start with the Syd Field method, and while your technique follows the act-structure it’s quite different. Can you first touch on why you separate films into comedy or tragedy?
I’ll first give credit to Aristotle, as those are his definitions:
Applied to the feature-film screenplay:
A tragedy is a story where the protagonist fails to overcome a flaw and falls from good fortune to bad, which means it usually has a sad ending.
A comedy is essentially the opposite. In a feature-film screenplay:
A comedy is a story where the protagonist is able to overcome their flaw and learn its opposite, and the protagonist sees their fortune go from bad to good, which means it usually has a happy ending.
Taken from The Nutshell Technique.
If you look at his Poetics, he actually included two other forms of drama that are no longer in existence, despite their popularity in Greek culture. I bring up Aristotle, not just to blame him, but because his book is one of the best books you’ll read on screenwriting, not just dramatic writing.
I’m certainly not the first to say that, and I think anyone worth their salt should give some credit to Aristotle for the basic structure, which comes from Poetics. That was how I was taught when I studied at Columbia University and then later it was reinforced in writing programs in New York City.
I hadn’t used those definitions prior to that, but once I did, it turned on a light bulb. Now, I can’t help but to divide stories that way. People need to understand that it doesn’t refer to “ha-ha” comedy and many of the films you’d call a “comedy” are actually Aristotelian tragedies. This is something my students have to adjust to, but then it’s quite useful. I couldn’t start without getting those definitions out of the way.
In addition, and this next step may be the writer’s secret, but there is ultimately one protagonist. This is true even within ensembles. The audience doesn’t have to perceive this, but it’s the writer’s secret weapon to know that one character is the protagonist, even if it appears to be an ensemble piece where each character has equal screen time. We only need for one character to fit one of those definitions.
In comedy, they usually overcome a flaw and then we receive a happy ending. The protagonist in a tragedy, however, fails to change and fails to overcome their flaw, so they may end up with a sad ending. The other characters do not have to fit these patterns, but the protagonist must do so in order for the audience to feel satisfied.
The examples throughout the book are very informative, specifically the charts in the back of the book. With these examples like The Social Network, Annie Hall and even nonlinear films like Pulp Fiction, is there a perfect screenplay out there that could provide newcomers with the best outline to follow?
I couldn’t single out one, but I do often find myself impressed as a viewer . One example that’s not in the book would be Flight, (written by John Gatins, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Denzel Washington). I didn’t see the film right away, and I think this was due to the overshadowing of the plane flying upside-down, but when I finally got around to seeing it, I still didn’t know much about the plot.
We’re moving into the second act and entering the crisis, or the “slide into hell,” as I call it. He’s about to face the hearing, and it’s the one time in his life where he needs to lie and they make it easy for him, because no one living will be hurt by this lie—only the memory of someone who was killed—and in this wonderful performance, you can see that he simply cannot do it.
He’s been lying for years. He says, “Hey, don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life…” But this time, he can’t do it.
It’s not at all what we would consider part of the conventional comedy structure. In the third act, he’s happier with himself that he has been the entire time, even though his situation seems much worse. Movies can be surprisingly satisfying and unexpected, even while following the structure.
How can a writer determine whether their work is a situation rather than a story and what steps can help them move forward in the right direction?
It is always much easier to fix story from the beginning, rather than 120 pages into it. It’s not impossible the other way, but much more difficult. I encourage people to meet with me to simply talk story, which is more time and money efficient because I can quickly identify what’s working and what’s not.
When people try to self-identify, there are lots of pitfalls to fall into. So I would meet with someone and hash out what’s working and not working. With a finished script, I would be discussing the same story elements. The danger with the script is that people want feedback on a page level, so they’re asking about dialogue or page count, but we may need to completely restructure the script to tell a story.
Can you elaborate on the Hamlet quote in the beginning of the book and how it relates to the title?
I could be bounded in a nutshell,
And count myself a king of infinite space.
Hamlet (II, ii, 234-235)
Honestly, it’s the first known instance of the phrase “in a nutshell.” That’s where the title comes from and many phrases that we take for granted, come from Shakespeare. It’s metaphorical, about being in something as small as a nutshell, but still being able to fit everything into a small space.
You say that endless creativity is possible within the three-act act structure, which is proven again and again each year as great movies are constantly being made, such as your example with Flight.
I agree! That’s ultimately the goal of any good structure. It should give some restraint, but also free your creativity. You can create something new. You can find that surprise ending. The structure and limited constrictions can help you move forward in the right direction.
The charts in the back of the book show the endless possibilities working with the structure. Did those start to form before the book, during your research phase when you were studying films?
Absolutely. There are around thirty examples in the back, but I have hundreds. I honestly Nutshell every movie that I see and advise my students to do the same. It’s one thing to see how I do it with classic films, but it’s another thing to do it for your own story.
What is the one thing a writer could change tomorrow to better their writing habits using your technique?
This can also be attributed to Aristotle, although it’s a little unclear that he actually said this, but “a great ending is inevitable yet unexpected.” That’s a pretty tall order but that is our goal as writers. Ending, in this case, refers to climax. More often that not, with screenwriters, the ending is not unexpected. It’s not surprising.
My advice in finding that ending would be to consider the character in their crisis, which is their lowest point at the end of the second act. They should be between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes writers put them between a rock and a soft place, and even if they don’t choose the easy answer, the audience doesn’t want to see it as an option.
As we reach the climatic choice, I ask for writers to avoid choosing the rock or the hard place. Instead, I ask that they choose the banana. This is my code word for writers, to encourage them to find the inevitable, yet unexpected choice. It’s not a rock or a hard place—it’s not even in the same family. Rock, hard place, banana: It’s a simple code to help writers find that inevitable, unexpected ending.
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