Studying screenplay structures makes it easy for one to spot upcoming plot developments. Most traditional movie scripts unwind in three acts, with distinct beats driving the narrative.
Multiple books have been written about writing scripts. Authors like Syd Field and Robert McKee have written influential books on screenwriting, and there are always variations of the theme, like the more recent Save the Cat, from Blake Snyder, that takes problem solving regarding plotting to another level.
Jill Chamberlain, in addition to teaching screenwriting workshops in Austin, has written a book that offers a comprehensive method of breaking down a script based on Aristotelian concepts of tragedy and comedy first outlined in Poetics (335 BCE). (The tragedy structure analysis in the book is the only part extant.)
The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting (published by University of Texas Press) offers breakdowns of over thirty movies that every movie maven has seen. The list of movies covered in the book include Casablanca, The Godfather, Collateral, Tootsie, Groundhog Day, Pulp Fiction, Chinatown, Annie Hall and a couple of dozen more.
Chamberlain uses a chart that divides each film into three acts. The First Act establishes the protagonist, their set-up want and their flaw. Before the thirty minute mark, our hero (or anti-hero) will pass a “point of no return” and will also experience a moment where they get their “set-up want.” For instance, in The Social Network, Mark wants to get into a final club. While he gets his inspiration for Facebook, he also finds that his set-up want has a catch: His idea is identical to that of the Winklevoss Twins. Chamberlain signifies Social Network as a tragedy because by the end Mark fails to move toward his strength.
Likewise, Chamberlain labels Collateral a comedy because at the end Max (Jamie Foxx) moves away from his flaw to his strength.
In the second act, the lead character builds from their set-up want to their crisis, which is the opposite of what they originally wanted. Max at first doesn’t want his customer Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) to get out of his cab. By the end of the second act, Max wants his other customer Vincent (Tom Cruise) to get the hell out of his cab.
In Pulp Fiction, the set-up for Jules (Samuel Jackson) is to not let his boss Marcellus be “fucked like a bitch.” In the Crisis moment at the end of Act Two, Marcellus “is literally fucked like a bitch when he’s raped by Zed.” Eventually, Jules moves away from his flaw and towards his strength when at the end he lets Pumpkin and Honey Bunny go free. A single chapter is devoted to examining Pulp Fiction‘s non-linear structure and how the film wouldn’t work if it was cut in chronological order.
The Third Act of a classically constructed film shows the protag confronting a “climatic choice.” Depending on whether the film is a comedy, the character will be down and out and come to a realization that results in them moving toward their strength. Or, in a tragedy the character will be at the top of the world only to see the bottom fall out as they move away from their strength to be engulfed by their flaw.
For instance, at the end of Up in the Air, Ryan (George Clooney) walks out of a convention while giving a speech and visits his mistress only to discover she’s married. At the end “Ryan is on the road with no idea what will happen next.”
After reading The Nutshell Technique you will find yourself analyzing the next film you see with an eye towards structure and execution. As I’m writing this article the movie When Harry Met Sally is on the television and the café-orgasm scene – “I’ll have what she’s having.” – literally appears at the halfway point.
Chamberlain writes with a joy and true appreciation of cinema. At times she asks us to take a given film, say Groundhog Day, and replace the character of Phil with any of the other characters in the film to show how absolutely the film would not work.
Another point Chamberlain makes is how to make the third act reveal pop out of left field. In Tootsie we were dropped clues during the Second Act that sometimes a soap opera has to be shot live because of a technicality. So when this actually happened at the Climatic Choice in the Third Act, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) uses the live broadcast to out himself as a man who’s been playing a woman.
Another interesting angle Chamberlain brings up is how to take an ensemble cast (The Usual Suspects) and determine who is the main character, which in this case is Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). Kujan thinks that Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is Keyser Soze but it’s really Verbal (Kevin Spacey) whom Kujan has interrogated and lets go free at the end. Interestingly enough both of the Oscar® nominations for The Usual Suspects (Best Script by Christopher McQuarry and Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Spacey) resulted in wins.
A recent screening of The Seagull had your humble scribe trying to determine the protagonist in the ensemble cast. I settled on Konstantin (Billy Howle) as his actions determine the course of the rest of the cast.
The Nutshell Technique offers ideas that will grow in resonance with each movie you watch. Also a comprehensive method of categorizing movies that you might consider your favorites can now be applied. Inevitably you come across a classic that can’t be boxed into a corner. It’s like you have to know the boundaries of the rules to break the rules.
The Nutshell Technique is available at local booksellers and the usual internet options. Jill Chamberlain has multiple websites set up for her screenwriting classes.