Howard Suber is one of my mentors. He founded the graduate program I was in at UCLA and has taught literally thousands of students about the power of film and narrative structure.
From his bio at UCLA:
During his 40 years on the UCLA faculty, Howard Suber helped establish and also chaired the UCLA Film Archive, the Critical Studies and Ph.D. Programs, and the UCLA Producers Program. He is a former Associate Dean, recipient of UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and has been a consultant and expert witness to all the major film studios on copyright and creative control issues. He continues to teach Film Structure and Strategic Thinking.
He is the author of The Power of Film and Letters to Young Filmmakers: Creativity and Getting Your Films Made.
I spoke to him about how to be a better storyteller and how we can use narrative to improve our lives.
What Do All Great Stories Have In Common?
The word “but.” Which is to say inexperienced or poor storytellers structure their material with the words “and” or “then.” So “They did this, and then they did that, and then they did this, and then they did that,” which produces an episodic structure that doesn’t build on anything, and there’s no relationship between what came before and what came after.
How To Be A Better Storyteller
What is something quick and easy that people can keep in mind to be better storytellers?
“Things are not what they seem.” It’s that to get people to sit on the edge of their chair or to get them involved in your story, the audience has to constantly discover something new.
One of the constants in great stories is that things are never what they seem, because if things are what they seem, why would you read it, watch it, or listen to it?
So, in “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” — you just run off the names of the memorable films — any statement you make about the central character has to be followed by the word “but.” So Michael Corleone is a cold-blooded murderer, but he does it for his family. Rick Blaine sticks his neck out for nobody, as he tells you three times, but then he does, and sacrifices the only thing he’s ever really loved for the cause.
Without the surprise, without the twist, if you don’t pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, then it’s unlikely you’re going to be memorable. It’s precisely the fact that things are not what they seem that makes a story interesting.
The Two Kinds of Heroes
In movies we have two kinds of heroes. One is the costume hero. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. Their character is literally defined by the costume, which from a commercial standpoint is useful because we have instant recognizability, and it also means any actor can play this character. I put James Bond in there, even though he’s not literally wearing a costume. His costume is driving fancy cars and being impeccably dressed in formal wear.
But in any case, the costume hero is a professional hero. What do they do with their lives on a day-to-day basis? Well, they rescue people.
But the most interesting heroes, for boys over a certain age, that is, not for 14-year-old boys, the most interesting hero is somebody who is driving home and hears a cry from a female voice that yells, ‘Help, help, my child is trapped inside,’ and they look to their left and discover there’s a burning building, and they jump out of the car and they go in and rescue the child.
And when they’re interviewed by the paper the next morning, and somebody calls them a hero, they deny they’re a hero. And what do they say? “I did what anybody would do.” So they’re characters who perform a heroic act. Again, I go back to Rick Blaine, who keeps saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” He’s not a hero until he does. I mean, he’s not a memorable hero until he sends the only person he’s ever loved off to be with another man. Then he’s a hero. But when he goes to Brazzaville with Claude Rains, he is not going to continue to perform heroic acts.
What I call ‘costume heroes’ or ‘professional heroes’ don’t tell us anything useful about how we ought to live, because we know we don’t have magic powers, and therefore we can’t be like them.
Using Stories To Guide Our Lives
Do you think that storytelling is always after the fact, that it’s how we interpret our lives, or do you think there’s something to learn from stories and the principles of dramatic structure that’s forward-looking, that we can use to guide our lives?
That’s an excellent question. Every so often in my personal life with friends, I’ll have somebody who will be telling me, it’s usually over a meal, about they’re in a relationship, and it’s in trouble and this trouble has been going on for some time, often years, and it’s now heading for a crisis. And it’s one of those things where you know sort of, even though they don’t verbalize it, they’re asking, “What do you think? What do you think I should do?”
And after listening to the narrative for a while, every so often, I’ll say, “What movie are you living now?” And it always produces the same response. The person is startled because it sounds initially like a trivial question. They’re usually telling the story with considerable agony, and so they kind of freeze like a deer. And then their eyes rotate, usually upwards to the right, which is where a lot of people go when they’re searching their memory bank, and then they’ll laugh.
That’s the important point of this, and they’ll laugh and say, “The Exorcist,” or something like that. And the laugh is a sign of recognition that the story they’ve been telling me has a recognizable structure, and once they give me that, they then usually laugh again and say something like, “Oh, my God.” I then say, as quietly as I can, “And where does the story go?” And that’s the advice I’ve given them.
Fate vs Destiny
What’s the most important thing that you feel you teach your students, and what’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from your students?
The most important thing that I teach is the difference between fate and destiny and the point that we — ‘we,’ that is to say, the hero — seizes control of his destiny. The most important thing I’ve learned from my students is how hard it is to understand that principle.
Can you talk more about the distinction between fate and destiny?
Fate is the impersonal force that exists outside of the individual for which the individual can place neither blame nor credit. So you are of a certain height, weight, you have a certain amount of handsomeness or beauty or physical strength, or sexual allure. You speak a certain language. Usually, you have a certain religion, if you have one at all. And I should add education too. Not because of what you yourself did, but because of what the circumstances into which you were born and what your genetics were and so on.
Character is not dependent upon fate. If someone is killed on a highway, we don’t call it a destined action, we call it a fatal accident. It’s fate. They were not responsible for this thing, whereas in American history, the phrase ‘manifest destiny’ is one of the key concepts that led to filling space with Europeans from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Destiny is something outside yourself that you have to get off your ass and seize. So you seize control of your destiny.
So, again, if you take “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone is not destined to be the Godfather. In fact, in the beginning, he proudly declares in the wedding scene, ‘That’s my family, Kate, not me.’ And that’s a typical stance for a hero, to deny that he belongs to his family or his community. He is going to be different, he’s going to get out of here and become someone else. But what happens so often is, as happens with the Godfather, that Michael chooses to join the family when his father’s life was in danger. And then, he has to earn his bones. So when his ring is kissed at the end, and Clemenza calls him “Godfather,” he has earned that by his own actions. He wasn’t born with the gene pool that made him a killer.
Plot vs. Story
If you look up the dictionary definition of ‘plot,’ it will include in its definition the word ‘story,’ and of course, if you look up the word ‘story,’ it will include the word ‘plot,’ so a lot of use that is. But if you look at it, this is similar to what you know about my use of the terms ‘fate’ and ‘destiny,’ where the dictionary says they’re synonyms and I say they’re not synonyms in the way that we use the terms in the English language.
And so, if you ask somebody to tell you the story of their life, the structure of that story, pretty invariably, is going to be a war story. “They laughed at me when I was a kid and in high school, and they told me I was never going to amount to anything, and then they laughed at my music, my first screenplay, and my novel, whatever. But I persevered, and I had these assholes who constantly were trying to kill me, psychologically, but I prevailed and here I am to tell you the story.”
That’s what you get when you ask somebody to tell you the story of their life.
If you ask somebody, “Tell me the plot of your life,” they’re going to give you a very long, boring response. They’re going to say, “Well, I was born in a little town in blah, blah, blah, and I was raised,” and they’re going to give you a lot of circumstantial information that they think is part of what makes a story, but what makes a story is, “What does it mean? Where is it going?”
And since we just talked about Apocalypse, as I said, Coppola simply was haunted throughout the production by the knowledge he didn’t know how the story was going to end until an old UCLA friend of his who he flew in to talk to him about the story, it wasn’t a screenwriter, he was sort of a general philosopher, and he started talking about the golden bough and the idea that, ‘The king is dead, long live the king,’ and what a common myth that is. And that gave Coppola the “So what?” point of the plot.
We all meet people all the time who tell you about a film. You say, ‘What’s it about?’ And they start giving you a scene-by-scene breakdown. And you quickly say, ‘No, no, that’s not what I’m interested in.’ … One of the things that makes certain stories memorable or great is that they tell us something about our own lives, about the purpose of our lives, about our duty. To quote the common line, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” Story is the purpose of the plot of our lives.
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