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Interview – UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber explains how you can be a better storyteller

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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 can someone become a better storyteller?

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.

This reminds me of LOST -- every time we'd pull back a layer, things would be different than we thought.

How can we use stories to guide our lives?

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.

That's really clever.

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