In case you’ve been trapped in a dark basement for the past year or so, let me be the one to tell you: horror films have fully hit the mainstream — and are producing big box office bank. Don’t believe me? Just look at what won the 2017 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (and the subject of my last Screencraft article): Jordan Peele’s excellent Get Out. And consider this spring’s sleeper hit A Quiet Place (written by John Krasinski and 2018 ScreenCraft Horror Screenplay Contest judges Scott Beck and Bryan Woods).
A lot of writers (myself included) who didn’t consider themselves fans of the genre are rethinking horror. It makes sense when you think about it. As writers, we want to push our characters to confront their deepest fears and face their biggest challenges. We try to create stories that reveal universal truths in unordinary circumstances. Horror allows us to write about things below the surface and deep down in our psyches, things that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore.
Let’s look at A Quiet Place and what my Nutshell Technique can show us about its story structure.
I created the Nutshell Technique as a way to help screenwriters address a chronic problem I see. In my work as a script consultant, I find that 99% of aspiring screenwriters fail to tell a story. What the 99% do instead is present a situation. In order to explain the difference, I created the Nutshell Technique, a method whereby writers identify eight interconnected elements required to properly tell a story.
What’s completely unique about the Nutshell Technique — and how it differs from all the “beat sheet” methods out there — is that it’s a dynamic structure. There is a relationship between these elements that’s absolutely critical, and if you miss them, you are very likely to end up in the 99% who fail to tell a story.
Caution: Spoilers ahead.
For my clients and students, I created the Nutshell Technique form. It’s a schematic that maps out these eight elements and their crucial interrelationships so writers can see visually what’s working and what’s not. In my book The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting, I have thirty very different movies all laid out on this identical form, so you can see just how universal this structure is in superior screenplays. I used the exact same form in my article on Get Out. Now let’s look at the Nutshell Technique as applied to A Quiet Place:
Here is my checklist for the Nutshell Technique form. To properly set up a story, all of the following must be true:
❐ Does the protagonist get their SET-UP WANT immediately and directly in the POINT OF NO RETURN?
❐ Does the protagonist get something immediately in the POINT OF NO RETURN that they don’t want, the CATCH?
❐ Is the CATCH the perfect test of the protagonist’s FLAW?
❐ Is the CRISIS the lowest the protagonist can go?
❐ In the CRISIS, is the protagonist in the exact opposite state of mind or situation of where they were in the SET-UP WANT?
❐ In both the CLIMACTIC CHOICE and the FINAL STEP, does the protagonist move away from the FLAW and toward the STRENGTH?
❐ Are the FLAW and the STRENGTH exact opposites?
Let me walk through A Quiet Place and how the Nutshell Technique works in it.
The Abbott family appear to be the only known survivors of an alien invasion. Patriarch Lee Abbott (John Krasinski)’s SET-UP WANT is for his son to not make noise because the eyeless aliens find their prey strictly using their sense of sound. Alas, things end fatefully for the youngest son after he sneaks a noisy toy.
But Lee does achieve his SET-UP WANT in the event that demarcates the end of Act 1 and pushes us into Act 2, which I call the POINT OF NO RETURN. The POINT OF NO RETURN is when the kids play silent Monopoly using special cloth game pieces so they don’t make noise. Lee gets his SET-UP WANT for his son to not make noise (now with a different son) but there’s a CATCH: in the process, they knock over a lantern. When Lee puts out the fire, it results in noise, and the aliens find them.
Lee’s central FLAW is his lack of confidence that he can protect and be there for his kids, (which is understandable after what happened to his youngest). The CATCH that they knock over a lantern, resulting in the aliens finding them, is the perfect test of this FLAW. The CATCH-FLAW amalgamation drives the entire second act. The fallen lantern directly leads to the aliens finding them on their farm, and Act 2 will be a continuous test of the aliens having found them combined with Lee’s lack of confidence that he can fully protect his family.
Things get more and more dire as Act 2 progresses.
Finally, Lee’s pregnant wife flips on the red lights which is the emergency signal they’ve set up for when she’s giving birth. Lee has reached his CRISIS, and, utterly desperate, he now wants his son to make noise by setting off a firecracker to distract the aliens away from her. This is the exact opposite of his initial SET-UP WANT for his son to not make noise.
In the third act, the protagonist will begin to move away from the FLAW toward its opposite, the STRENGTH. In A Quiet Place, Lee now moves from his FLAW of lack of confidence toward its opposite, confidence. The beginning of Act 3 is demarcated with the film’s climax. Central to the climax, the protagonist makes a difficult decision which I call the CLIMACTIC CHOICE. Lee’s CLIMACTIC CHOICE is to make the ultimate sacrifice for his kids. As the alien traps his kids and is about to kill them, Lee signs to his daughter that he has always loved her, and then he yells with all his might so that the alien will come kill him, and his children can escape.
In the last scene of the movie, Lee takes his FINAL STEP, posthumously.
Inspired by Lee’s writing on his whiteboard of “what’s the weakness?” his daughter figures out how to defeat the aliens. His daughter puts her hearing implant up to the PA, and the feedback from this both attracts and debilitates the auditorily-sensitive aliens. In Act 3, Lee not only achieves the STRENGTH of confidence, he inspires confidence in his daughter and wife that they can finally defeat the alien invaders.
Jill Chamberlain is a script consultant and the founder of The Screenplay Workshop (www.thescreenplayworkshop.org). Her book, The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting, is one of the highest rated screenwriting books on Amazon, out of over 3,000 books on the subject. It is considered the go-to manual many professionals swear by and is on the syllabus for film schools across the U.S. including the acclaimed screenwriting program at Columbia University. Producer Callum Greene (Star Wars Episode 9, Crimson Peak, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) said “Chamberlain’s Nutshell Technique cracks the code behind why we love the movies that we love. It will guide you to organically write the story you want to tell.” Her guidance has fixed and fine-tuned scripts for major Hollywood studios, A-list writers, television showrunners, award-winning independent filmmakers and many spec screenwriters. Learn more and connect with Jill at jillchamberlain.com.
Photo Credit: Jonny Cournoyer – Paramount Pictures