Benjamin Sutherland

Harnessing Narrative for Better Nonfiction and Fiction

This workshop outlines narrative structures in film and details the lessons they hold for writers of nonfiction and fiction—be it at the level of a book, chapter, paragraph, or sentence. Structures we look at include the 12-step “monomyth” (also known as “the hero’s journey”), a 22-step plot sequence, Hollywood “reveal” tempos, and several templates for treating the psychological evolution of a person, be she the subject of a journalistic portrait or the hero of a novel. Understanding these and other narrative elements— leitmotif, story world, and dialog sequencing, to name three—helps journalists, academics, novelists, and others write compellingly by better establishing credibility, building suspense, delivery surprise, marshaling argument and counterargument, and determining what to write (and what is best left unwritten).

Message to Students

My students should be prepared to take notes, as well as to think quickly and laterally, the better to enrich class discussions. Students should bring one or more samples of unpublished writing. Above all, they should enjoy themselves. My advice for writers who have never attended SBWC is to come and enjoy the conference’s friendly and stimulating atmosphere in a beautiful California beach town.


Benjamin Sutherland is a writer, journalist, editor, screenwriter, documentarian, and teacher. He currently reports from the United States and Europe for The Economist and spent five years writing for Newsweek and over a year as a staff screenwriter for Cinemarket, a Paris production company. One of Sutherland’s editing and writing projects, Modern Warfare,Technology, and Deterrence, was translated into Chinese and published by Xinhua. As an editor and writer for Colors magazine, he co-wrote Cacas: The Encyclopedia of Poo, which was published in various editions and four languages by Taschen and Leonardo Arte. Sutherland co-directed “Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man,” an award-winning documentary filmed in France, Morocco, and California. In addition to his creative projects, Sutherland teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in crafting nonfiction, the mechanics of narrative, and geopolitics at schools including HEC, a grande école near Paris, and Scuola Holden in Turin, Italy. Sutherland’s hometown is Santa Barbara.

Writing Tip I Live By

Don’t write a text, build it. Approaching writing as construction makes it easier to produce prose that is lean, nicely sequenced, and authoritative. And that’s what makes for a compelling read.

Recommended Authors

Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, Chimo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Hesse, Robert Kaplan,Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Dr. Seuss.