What fiction and life have in common
Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Days: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is exactly what the subtitle says it is — a recounting of what Miller learned about life while learning how to make a movie based on his bestselling memoir, Blue Like Jazz.
What’s wonderful is he takes us through the process of figuring out what makes a good movie — i.e. a good story — and in the process we learn how important it is to make good stories in our own lives.
It begins when two filmmakers, Ben and Steve, arrive at his home in Portland and proceed to dissect his book, tearing it apart and putting it back together in a format suitable for a movie. One of them explains to him life itself is just a series of random experiences, which a good writer can make insightful and interesting. But a movie has to have “structure” and “action” and “conflict.”
Feeling he needs more knowledge about the “structure” of a good story, Miller attends an expensive Los Angeles seminar by renowned storyteller Robert McKee. When later he confesses to his eccentric friend, Jordan, he failed to get the point of the seminar, Jordan sums it all up for him: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
He comes to realize the point is not the “getting something,” it’s the character transformation that goes on while the character journeys toward “getting something.” The point of the story (and of life) is for us to search for and find something, thereby transforming ourselves. In fiction, it’s called character arc. In life, it’s just called living.
Here are some of my favorite of Miller’s epiphanies about storytelling and life:
- The hero/heroine has to do something good in the first part of the book/movie to make him/her sympathetic.
- Characters don’t want to be transformed. They must be forced to change.
- An inciting incident kicks off the hero/heroine’s journey. It is usually a doorway through which they cannot return.
- Fear, which is created by ambition, is the bugaboo in all stories. The characters are going to encounter it and we are going to encounter it but we shouldn’t let it boss us around.
- The harder the resistance encountered in the journey or pursuit, the more important the task must be.
- Two things that make an epic story: extreme risk and sacrifice.
- The middle of the story — which Miller calls “the crossing” — is the most difficult because you’ve lost sight of the beginning and the original purpose and you can’t see the ending yet. There is a point in the middle of the story when characters feel they just can’t take it anymore and are tempted to give up. McKee told his students, “You put them (the characters) through hell … that’s the only way we change.”
- Good stories need memorable scenes and they’re often in strange places.
Throughout the book, Miller tells us his own personal stories about learning to make a movie, leaving behind his life as a “coach potato” in order to take up bicycle riding, making a grueling climb to the top of Machu Picchu in Chile, falling in love with a woman and then losing her, founding a nonprofit to help disadvantaged youth, and taking part in a cross country bike ride to raise money for a charity.
He uses his stories to tell us what he learned about life — basically, if you want good stories, you have to be a good character.
Find Donald Miller’s blog at http://donmilleris.com/. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.