The Nutshell Technique – Jill Chamberlain
By John Fraim
After the surprise upset in the 2016 election, Hollywood became worried they were not telling the right type of stories. Their concern was expressed in headline after headline in The Hollywood Reporter and other leading entertainment publications. In truth, it wasn’t just the election that gave them cause to worry. Many big budget films had been tanking in the past few years and China was buying more and more of the movie business.
What was/is the real problem? Sure, it resides somewhat in the type of stories Hollywood is telling. More than once, we’ve all read or seen films and asked ourselves what were the filmmakers smoking when they created a particular film. But more than the type of stories created, there seems to be something amiss with Hollywood stories in general. Yes, Hollywood has problems recognizing that life exists beyond LA and California. And yes, Hollywood is not the greatest fortress of morality and ethics. However, there seems to be something more than this at the root of the story problem in Hollywood.
For one thing, the business of selling advice on writing screenplays has grown a lot larger than the business of selling screenplays. A few years ago, I tried to document the various segments of the business by starting a book called Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenwriting Books and Theories. I came up with ten distinct schools of screenwriting and a spectrum of plot structures encompassing three, five, eight, fifteen, seventeen, twenty-two and twenty-three steps. (There is now even a book called Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know). The various schools were populated with well-known screenwriting gurus and labeled with names like “Mythological School,” “Ancient School,” “Plot School,” “Sequence School” and “Step School.” I received a lot of encouragement from many screenwriting friends on the book but after awhile I stopped work on it as it was too hard to keep up with this business of selling screenwriting advice. Not only were there books to consider but also courses, consultants, coaches, script doctors, seminars, webinars and, yes, more theories and beats.
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It seems the problem with screenplays (as well as films made from them) is the lack of some Einstein-like “unified theory” of screenwriting. For example, within the growing screenplay advice business, there exists no generally accepted structure for telling stories as various sequences theories roam over the landscape. Are you a Save the Cat fifteen-step-structure person? Or, are you a seventeen-step Chris Vogler/Joseph Campbell Hero With A Thousand Faces person? Are you a follower of John Truby’s twenty-two steps in The Anatomy of Story? Or do you follow the USC sequence method propounded by Paul Gulino in The Sequence Approach? The list goes on and on. In all of this, general books discussing screenwriting principles such as Robert McKees’s Story remain in that rather lonesome (and unprofitable) general purpose niche of “screenwriting bibles.”
One reason for the explosion of theories and fragmentation of the screenplay advice industry is that there is little economic incentive for everyone to come together in a Coke commercial Kumbaya moment. In effect, screenplay theories attempt to be different from other theories in order to apply that important marketing principle of differentiation to their products to create distinct “brands” of screenplay theory. It is this branding and differentiation that has given us 500 channels (and nothing on), fifty brands of toothpaste and supermarkets with 50,000 products in them. Placed on top of the segmentation of the screenwriting industry, are Darwinian principles about evolution and diversity, the phenomena of late capitalism and a (post) postmodern world of increased relativity. The situation is not confined just to screenwriting theory but is apparent in the segmentation of professional and academic disciplines into smaller and smaller areas of knowledge. More and more is known about less and less.
A lot might say this is a good thing, that this sense of freedom in creating stories is better than being pigeon-holed into one theory or method. In a sense, this might be true. After all, screenwriting is not a science that meticulously builds a knowledge based from pieces of information but is more a bumper-car type of craft and art-form. At the same time, there is also no real coming-together of ideas from various books and theories and gurus to expand the overall knowledge of that literary form called screenwriting. Hollywood constantly preaches community and communion but doesn’t practice it in the world of modern screenplay theory. In all of this, the best course might be for Hollywood screenwriting to attempt navigation through a middle way between art and science. After all, screenwriting is the most studied and discussed story form in history and there just might be some science in the whole thing. In fact, a few companies are now studying screenplays with the tools of modern technology and science searching for the “keys” to great screenplays.
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Despite the over-production of screenwriting theory books, there are some truly new and innovative books and theories out there that don’t add to the overall segmentation and fragmentation of screenwriting. One of the best to come along in a long time is Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique (University of Texas Press, 2016). The book identifies eight interconnected elements required to tell a successful story. Interestingly, the book does not take up the trend to add and own more steps in screenplay structure but harkens back to the old three-step drama sequence of Aristotle and his modern incarnation in Syd Field.
Rather than proceed down a linear path in creating a story, Chamberlain (a script doctor, story consultant and coach) tells readers not to begin at the usual set-up but rather at what she calls “the point of no return.” This is the event at the end of the first act that moves the story into the second act. No, this point is not the traditional “inciting” incident but something much more powerful in that the “point of no return” comes with a “catch” that sets up the second act and really the entire screenplay. In brief, the “point of no return” gives the protagonist what he/she wants in the opening of the screenplay but with a “catch” to this want.
For example, consider the film Tootsie. The “set-up want” of the protagonist (Dustin Hoffman) is a job and the “point of no return” is that he is offered a job in an opera role. The “catch” though is that he must pretend to be a woman. One of the (few) accepted principles of screenwriting is that the protagonist needs to start with some “flaw” at the beginning of the story that will become a “strength” (or not) at the end of the story. The flaw of the Tootsie protagonist is that he doesn’t respect woman. The purpose of the “catch” is to test this beginning character “flaw” and do battle with it through the second act arriving at a new “strength” in his respect for women in act three.
Unlike most other screenwriting books and theories, The Nutshell Technique offers a visual view of this theory with little footsteps of the protagonist’s story journey. It is almost like a board game where players go to different boxes. The boxes are blank for the screenwriter to fill in. The book explains how to fill in the boxes. Chamberlain offers two types of boxes: one for comedy and one for tragedy. But they’re not the same idea one usually has of comedy and tragedy. Comedy is defined where a flaw at the beginning becomes a strength at the end and tragedy defined where a flaw at the beginning becomes a worse flaw at the end. The book offers thirty examples of the technique from leading films. The “comedy” diagram for Pulp Fiction and the “tragedy” diagram for The Social Network are shown below.
A picture is worth thousand of words in screenplay books
Are Hollywood’s concerns that they are not telling the right types of stories a valid concern? And, if so, might the problem be located in the segmentation of screenwriting theory today? If the problem is fragmentation of story-telling techniques and methods, then Jill Chamberlain’s The Nutshell Technique offers something new that doesn’t add another theory to the theory heap in Hollywood. Rather, it allows screenwriters to see that old three-act structure in a totally new way. One is reminded of a famous quote from Proust. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” So it is with screenwriting. Chamberlains important book does not seek new screenwriting landscapes as much as it attempts to provide new “eyes” to screenwriters to see old story landscapes in new ways.
(John Fraim is a graduate of UCLA and Loyola Law School and grew up in LA. He founded The Desert Screenwriters Group and is President-Emeritus of The Desert Screenwriters Guild. He wrote a regular column for Script Magazine called “Script Symbology” and is working on a new book on the application of symbolism to screenwriting that – hopefully – does not add more fragmentation and complexity to screenwriting theory. He is President of Midnight Oil Studios.)