What the Craft of Storytelling Teaches Us About Life

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). 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.

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Leave A Comment
  1. FishMama says:

    You said it well.

    Jillian Michaels says it in 30 Day Shred, “Change doesn’t happen without stress.” She’s talking about fat and muscle, but the same thing applies to us.

  2. Katie says:

    The problem is that in stories, it’s a little pleasant for unpleasant things to happen. You feel that bit of sadness or anger or regret but you can put the story down and walk away from it, and it mostly ends up well.

    In real life you can’t just walk away from those things. They’re real feelings and real pain and they just freaking suck. And there’s just nothing you can do about it, and far too often no happy ending and no good choices, and it’s not always much of a consolation to know that you’re “growing” or “building character” or “learning important life lessons” in the process. Because sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re just getting beat down and hurt and there are experiences that leave scars that never really heal.

    Sigh. Everything lately is telling me I need to change and take a risk–but it’s hard when you’re not just risking yourself and your own livelihood, and it’s hard to face decisions that have real life consequences and real life dangers and not just storybook ones.

    That said–I think I’ll put the Miller book on my to-read list. Thanks for the review, Anne. ^_^

    • Anne says:

      I just finished reading L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series, and there’s a passage that captures this perfectly. Emily’s older, wiser friend tells Emily that she doesn’t want to live a thrilling story, because those kinds of stories are filled with pain. Far better to plod along evenly than suffer the highs and lows of an adventurous life.

      (Emily disagrees, and I bet Montgomery does, too.)

  3. Tim says:

    Life as story is something I’ve been thinking about for the last year or so. I hadn’t thought about the use of conflict as a story-telling tool and how it relates to real life, though. Thanks for putting that together here, Anne. Nicely done.


    P.S. Speaking of life stories, I just wrote a guest piece for My Offerings that went up this morning: http://myofferings.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-seeing-me-for-who-i-really-am/. I hope you get a chance to chek it out and let me know what you think.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks, Tim. The real life connection was eye-opening for me, too–even though I’d read A Million Miles before!

      I loved your piece at Aubry’s blog. I’ve been following the fashion industry’s photoshop scandals, but I was impressed that you were able to apply that to David. I didn’t see that coming from your lead-in! Well said.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks Anne. Aubry’s got a great blog going there, and I was really grateful that she would include me as a guest poster!

    • Finished reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and wrote a post today on some connections I found with Melville’s writing.

      There was a lot of inspiring thoughts in Miller’s book. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it again in the future.

      Thank you for the recommendation!

  4. Sandy says:

    Some of us are not so much living our stories as we are surviving them. This isn’t the story we set out to write, it’s the one we found ourselves in and we’re doing the best we can. The idea, I think, is to let God turn that pain into beauty, to allow Him to make us ‘strong in the broken places’. Only He can really write my story so that it will be worth telling…or living.

  5. Audrey says:

    This is really interesting. It’s not something I’ve thought about but it’s very true. A story without conflict is bland and does not require character growth.

  6. Missy Rose says:

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve had Story on my list for a while, but I think I need to add A Million Miles. Sounds interesting.
    My father is an incredible story teller, but I’ve never really thought about why his stories are so good. I realize now that there’s always conflict in all his stories.

  7. Jenna says:

    I really agree about how conflict is what grows us. It’s hard to go through the bad stuff, but it’s really what can make us stronger {though it’s SO HARD}. The was probably my biggest take-away from A Million Miles.

  8. Alia Joy says:

    I’ve definitely got the conflict and trials part down. I wouldn’t trade the pain in my life because it’s out of it that my story is born and through it that His glory shines the brightest. When we are weak, He is strong and it’s those trials and beatdowns that offer us a chance to cling to Him. We all have a chance for our story to be about redemption and healing but it’s in the surrender of our pain and conflict that we allow Him to be the author. Great stuff to think about as usual, Anne. Love reading your thoughts.

  9. Krissa says:

    I loved A Million Miles…I keep meaning to read it again because it’s been about a year since I read it last. But the pile of books by my bed keeps growing and I can’t keep up! Sounds like I should check out McKee’s textbook too…I’d love to write some of my story since I have recently come out of a brutal season and would love to share some encouragement for others that are still in their brutal seasons, but I’m having trouble getting started. Thanks for this post!

  10. Anne says:

    Krissa, I felt the same way (and finally re-read it one year after my first reading). I’d love to read your story if you do write it.

  11. Randi says:

    Thanks for this post! I am a planner, a compulsive, controlling planner. I don’t fail. ever. But I’ve noticed that rather than making me feel successful at everything, this inability to take risks without a shoe-in success makes me afraid of negative turns in my ‘story’. I get very, very fearful when I can’t tell how something is going to turn out. A friend has told me that I need to learn to make mistakes. But to me, that was like saying ‘go jump in traffic – you know it’s a mistake, but it’s good for you!!’ And I thought ‘psh. That’s for people who don’t look far enough ahead. Or who didn’t have a plan.’ This was the first time it really resonated with me that it’s ok to go through negative times, or to try things that might not pan out right, and it’s helping me leave my safety zone. So thanks.

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