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The Nutshell Technique

The Nutshell Technique

Presenting a proven technique for screenwriting centered on a character’s flaws and strengths, an expert screenwriting coach shows writers exactly how to construct screenplays that tell compelling, satisfying stories

March 2016
224 pages | 7 x 10 | 7 x 10 | 40 b&w illus. |

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Content from "The Nutshell Technique"Content from "The Nutshell Technique"

Veteran script consultant Jill Chamberlain discovered in her work that an astounding 99 percent of first-time screenwriters don’t know how to tell a story. These writers may know how to format a script, write snappy dialogue, and set a scene. They may have interesting characters and perhaps some clever plot devices. But, invariably, while they may have the kernel of a good idea for a screenplay, they fail to tell a story. What the 99 percent do instead is present a situation. In order to explain the difference, Chamberlain created the Nutshell Technique, a method whereby writers identify eight dynamic, interconnected elements that are required to successfully tell a story.

Now, for the first time, Chamberlain presents her unique method in book form with The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. Using easy-to-follow diagrams (“nutshells”), she thoroughly explains how the Nutshell Technique can make or break a film script. Chamberlain takes readers step-by-step through thirty classic and contemporary movies, showing how such dissimilar screenplays as Casablanca, Chinatown, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Silver Linings Playbook, and Argo all have the same system working behind the scenes, and she teaches readers exactly how to apply these principles to their own screenwriting. Learn the Nutshell Technique, and you’ll discover how to turn a mere situation into a truly compelling screenplay story.

  • A Note on the Text
  • Foreword by Patrick Wright
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part 1. The Problem with 99% of Screenplays
    • Chapter 1. The Problem
    • Chapter 2. The Solution
  • Part 2. The Nutshell Technique Process
    • Chapter 3. How to Use This Book
    • Chapter 4. Protagonist
    • Chapter 5. Set-Up Want: Part 1
    • Chapter 6. Point of No Return
    • Chapter 7. Set-Up Want: Part 2
    • Chapter 8. Catch
    • Chapter 9. Flaw
    • Chapter 10. Crisis
    • Chapter 11. Triumph
    • Chapter 12. Climactic Choice
    • Chapter 13. Final Step
    • Chapter 14. Strength
  • Part 3. Advanced Application of the Nutshell Technique
    • Chapter 15. Nonlinear Screenplays
    • Chapter 16. Using a "Secret Protagonist" to Structure a Nonconventional Story
  • Part 4: Film Nutshells
    • Annie Hall
    • Argo
    • August: Osage County
    • Being John Malkovich
    • The Big Lebowski
    • The Bourne Identity
    • Braveheart
    • Casablanca
    • Chinatown
    • Collateral
    • Crimes and Misdemeanors
    • Dallas Buyers Club
    • Frozen
    • The Godfather
    • Groundhog Day
    • Juno
    • Little Miss Sunshine
    • The Matrix
    • Memento
    • North Country
    • Pulp Fiction
    • Silver Linings Playbook
    • The Sixth Sense
    • The Social Network
    • Sunset Blvd.
    • Titanic
    • Tootsie
    • Up in the Air
    • The Usual Suspects
    • Witness
  • Notes
  • Index


Just over a century after the invention of the moving picture, Jill Chamberlain may be the one to have finally cracked cinema’s genetic code.

Jill reveals that there is something deeper at work in successful feature film screenplays, something more than simply three acts and an Inciting Incident. Working behind the scenes (so to speak) are specific dynamics required for creating fully dimensional protagonists and emotionally satisfying stories. Jill has mapped out these key dynamics and calls her method the Nutshell Technique. I am not aware of any other book or method demonstrating anything like it.

Jill positions her method against other approaches, arguing that they are not adequate in explaining the true reasons a feature film screenplay succeeds. She is correct, particularly regarding the canonical works by Robert McKee and Syd Field. While important, these titans fail to bring us to the “soul” of a film.

In general, there are two approaches to screenplay story structure. One focuses on plot. The other focuses on character arc and internal journey. Jill reveals that, in the best screenplays, these two pieces are, in fact, inextricably fused together.

I stress with my students that a protagonist’s internal journey should be expressed in the external world of the film. Every choice the filmmaker makes— regarding, for example, mise-en-scène, pacing, or lighting—should relate to the inner conflict of the film’s lead character. The darkness and decay of Gotham City mirrors Batman’s inner struggle to direct his rage and pain toward justice instead of vengeance.

This book presents a holistic and systematic view of why certain film screenplays work better than others. To explain the Nutshell Technique, Jill applies it to thirty well-known films, demonstrating just how stakes are set up and propel the story forward. Reading through her film examples is something of a revelation. Suddenly you see why the Climax in great dramatic films can produce the adrenaline rush you would expect from an action picture. And then you realize that some action pictures are deeper than they may at first appear, resonating with us long after their 120 minutes on the screen have ended and entreating us to reconsider humankind’s biggest philosophical questions. It dawns on the reader why there is such a large graveyard of failed “blockbusters,” and why this didn’t have to be.

There comes a point in developing almost any screenplay when you cannot see the forest for the trees and you lose perspective. The Nutshell Technique gives you back perspective. In requiring writers to identify story elements at their most essential, the Nutshell Technique guides them toward finding the authentic story that they originally intended to tell.

As screenwriters, we need better tools to help us develop more resonant stories. As educators, we need tools that help our students understand the mechanisms at work in great storytelling. In these pages, Jill Chamberlain has put together a fantastic tool set. Cinephiles will also find this book insightful, because it is filled with excellent examples of films that succeed due to Nutshell Technique mechanisms working behind the scenes.

This book is truly a must-read for anyone at all serious about understanding the mystery behind what makes a successful screenplay work.

—Patrick Wright Director, MFA in Filmmaking, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Co-Director, Johns Hopkins University and Maryland Institute College of Art Film Center


“A clever, fresh way of analyzing structure. I've added The Nutshell Technique to my own writing toolbox.”
Creative Screenwriting magazine

“A Top 10 Book of the Year. A go-to guide for anyone with a story to write.”
Austin Chronicle

The Nutshell Technique offers ideas that will grow in resonance with each movie you watch. . . a comprehensive method of categorizing movies that you might consider your favorites can now be applied.”
Free Press Houston

“Jill Chamberlain sets a new standard for plotting stories. Use the Nutshell Technique to crack your story.”
Han Jin-won, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Parasite (winner, Academy Award for Best Picture 2020)

“Very impressive! Jill Chamberlain's Nutshell Technique is like the Rosetta Stone: it cracks the code behind why we love the movies that we love. It goes way beyond tired old beat sheet 'formulas' and instead guides you to organically write the story you want to tell.”
Callum Greene, Producer, Star Wars Episode 9, Crimson Peak, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

“The best screenwriting book I've ever read, by far. Now I'm obsessed with the Nutshell Technique and can't stop applying it to every movie I see.”
Patrick Borelli, Emmy-Nominated Writer, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting is a book you can begin working from immediately. It delivers on its promise: a detailed, focused, ferociously practical method for structuring a screenplay. It doesn’t let you get distracted, it doesn’t let you off the hook: it helps you get the work done. Constructing a solid movie story is all about defining choices and then sticking to them, and author Jill Chamberlain shows you exactly how to do that.”
Glenn Gers, Screenwriter (Fracture with Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins)

“Just over a century after the invention of the moving picture, Jill Chamberlain may be the one to have finally cracked cinema’s genetic code. The Nutshell Technique is a truly great method for understanding the dramatic mechanisms needed for an excellent film. As screenwriters, we need better tools to help us develop more resonant stories. As educators, we need tools that help our students understand the mechanisms at work in great storytelling. In these pages, Chamberlain has put together a fantastic tool set.”
Patrick Wright, Director of the MFA in Filmmaking at Maryland Institute College of Art and codirector of the JHU and MICA Film Center in Baltimore, Maryland. An editor and producer, he has worked on such films as Oyler: One School, One Year, See You Soon Again, and the Academy Award–winning film Music by Prudence


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