Do you know what makes a story great? I’ve just finished two books that have me seeing everything through the lens of Story.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life
Several years ago, Don Miller plunged into the world of screenwriting to translate his memoir Blue Like Jazz into a screenplay. He worked with a pair of seasoned screenwriters, went to Robert McKee’s famous story conference, and watched dozens of movies to learn what makes a good story. Because a great story doesn’t happen by accident–it has to be planned.
During the screenwriting process Miller realized that “the same elements that make a movie meaningful are the ones that make a life meaningful”–and he realized he was stuck in a third-rate story. He was spending way too much time watching tv instead of actually living. He wasn’t living a great story, where characters grow and develop by facing up to their fears and chasing down their desires.
So Miller got off the couch. He figured out what he wanted, and he took some steps to get it. He faced up to some old fears. He chased the girl. He embarked on an adventure, and overcame a whole lot of conflict. He started living a better story.
This was my second time through A Million Miles. The first time through, I thought Miller told a good story. But the second time around, I started thinking about my own.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting
In A Million Miles, Miller attends Robert McKee’s Story seminar to learn from the master of the craft, and spends a few pages covering his experience at the seminar. After finishing A Million Miles, I was eager to find out more about story, so a natural next step–because Miller referred to it so often–was McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. The book is often recommended as an a cheap alternative to the $450 conference.
Story is a screenwriting textbook, but at its heart it’s about how to create a good story. I learned from McKee why good stories are rare, and difficult to create.
I learned a lot from this 700 page textbook on storytelling, but my biggest realization was that stories are propelled forward by conflict. Without conflict, there is no story. Skilled storytellers utilize conflict well, alternating positive and negative turns to maximize their dramatic effect.
Story in My Own Life, and Yours
While reading these books, I found myself filtering my own life through the lens of story. I don’t come from a family line that’s been keen to embrace–or even acknowledge–the conflict in our human stories. I’ve been taught to minimize the negative turns, to persistently deny the bad and refuse to believe that things might not turn out well. I’ve noticed this tendency and it’s nagged at me, but I could never articulate what exactly the root problem with this outlook was.
It’s this: You can’t write a good story without negative turns. Bad stuff happens in good stories. Characters have to grow and develop for a story to be meaningful, and they can only do that through conflict. Characters have to risk something to get the reward. There’s something to be said for optimism, but if you persistently deny conflict and fear risk, you can’t have a good story.
I know some of you are in the middle of bad stories: you’ve told me in your emails and on your facebook pages. To those of you battling through a brutal season: it’s no wonder you’re feeling so down, too many successive negative events make a depressing story. In a well-crafted story, the high points are always preceded by low ones, because the bad stuff gives the good stuff its punch. I hope and pray your positive turn comes soon, very soon.
I know some of you are coasting right now. To those of you who are gliding through life: there is no great story without risk. Figure out what you want, and go after it. Risk something.
Are you satisfied with the story you’re living?
I highly recommend A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story as a general interest book. I give it 5 stars, (although be warned–Miller’s writing style has exasperated some of my linear-thinking friends). The paperback is only $6.40 on Amazon right now, or you can get the Kindle edition for $4.99. Start there. Then, if you want to read more about the concept of story, grab Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting.