by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Jill Chamberlain is a sought-after screenplay expert, story consultant, coach, and author. She founded The Screenplay Workshop with Jill Chamberlain in 2006 and has worked with more than 1,000 screenwriters around the globe. Chamberlain serves on the adjunct faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Houston, and has been a guest lecturer at Parsons School of Design, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Film Society, The Writer’s Garret, Reel Women, Writers’ League of Texas, Austin School of Film, and Austin Screenwriters Group.
She sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to discuss her new book, The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting (University of Texas Press, 2016).
John Bucher: Let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about what prompted you to write The Nutshell Technique.
Jill Chamberlain: It came out of my work as a script consultant. People pay me good money to read their 120 pages of perfectly formatted screenplay in the correct font. There may be interesting characters, there may be sparkling dialogue, there might be interesting plot elements — but 99% of the time, they fail to tell a story. What they would do instead, I would describe as presenting a situation.
So this pervasive problem of people presenting situations instead of telling a story prompted me to bring this method which I’d been using in my workshops and that I’d developed from when I was a frustrated screenwriter. I researched and analyzed a lot of movies to see what worked. So what I wanted to do with The Nutshell Technique, put it all together in a nutshell. Let’s boil it down to what are the eight critical elements.
I think what’s really different about my method is it’s not just eight moments in time, these are eight dynamically related elements. They are very much interrelated. You can’t change one — it changes all of them, and I don’t know any of the other methods that address it. […] It’s not just plots and character development. In fact, these two things are inextricably linked, dynamically linked.
John Bucher: In the book you talk about the relationship between the flaw of the protagonist and the strength of the protagonist. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between those two parts of the protagonist’s characteristics?
Jill Chamberlain: Yes, actually they’re really the same element. They’re two sides of the same coin. To me, it’s the single most under-utilized tool for the writer, to know that at the center of a real story is a protagonist dealing with a flaw they’ve never, maybe, been forced to deal with. That’s what makes this story this story. That’s why we’re watching them at this moment in time. I call it the DNA of the story. That is the story. That’s why we’re watching this character and not another character.
John Bucher: A lot of new writers often buck against the idea of using any sort of a structure until they’ve actually been writing a while and find the value of it. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of structural technique when it comes to screenwriting?
Jill Chamberlain: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of writers say that to me, that they’re very resistant, they’re afraid of being formulaic. I can relate to that and I understand that need. You don’t want to be formulaic, you don’t want to be like everyone else. They have to realize that it is not formulaic if they find the right structure and that it frees them, in fact, to be creative. Much like improv. Improv isn’t just people running around on stage without any structure. There are rules, there are different structures that set things up, and by having small amounts of structure, that actually allows them to be free and find these directions that they otherwise wouldn’t.
John Bucher: Talk to me about why writers will benefit from buying your book. What are the big takeaways that a writer can expect from reading it?
Jill Chamberlain: I think they will find that there is a lot less structure and less constraint and formula than they would find in the majority of the books that are out there, that it allows for more originality and for more freedom and yet for a stronger story. I think my book also clears up a lot of things and defines more specifically things that you might find in similar books or from other methods.
Lastly, I’ve got the 30 movie Nutshell diagrams in the back. I encourage people, start with the pictures. Thumb through and look for a structure you can apply to your project. I examine everything from Casablanca to The Godfather and The Usual Suspects, and even more recent films. It’s 30 big diagrams that you can look at, find your favorite movie and start using this to apply to every movie you see, trying to see this hidden structure underneath. It’s going to help you be able to be a stronger writer by recognizing it and watching for it in the films that you love.
Jill will be presenting her technique and discussing her book this week in Los Angeles. Look for her at the following events.
- The Hatchery Press writing cooperative, 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10; free class for members, $5 for others. For information, http://thehatcherypress.com/event/the-nutshell-technique-better-screenplay-story-structure-with-jill-chamberlain/
- The Writers Store, the most important store in the world for screenwriters, 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12; free class, preregistration required and remaining space is very limited, https://www.writersstore.com/the-nutshell-technique-free-screenwriting-workshop-with-jill-chamberlain/
- The Writers Store book signing and reception, 5-6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12; free and open to the public
You can also learn more about Jill and her work at: www.thescreenplayworkshop.org
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.