What Is A Good Story?

I’m currently re-reading Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It is, without question, my most favorite book. The Holy Bible would have taken the top spot were it not for one, but TWO tedious books of Chronicles.

Side-note: I really hope you guys “get” my sense of humor by now.

ANYWAY. Just two weeks from tomorrow, I fly across the country for Donald Miller’s Storyline conference in Nashville. I’m beyond stoked. It was something I semi-spontaneously registered for this summer despite being in debt, before even purchasing any plane tickets to the Music City.

Wait, is that Nashville’s nickname? The Music City? Or is it more specifically the Country Music City? Or how about just the Country City? Is having “country” and “city” in the same city’s nickname just too confusing?

Whatever Nashvillians call Nashville, I’ll be there in hardly two weeks. When I made the decision not to return to Camp Ridgecrest this summer, I knew my wandering soul would need some kind of adventure before too long. And when Donald Miller himself announced he’d be giving Storyline away, I was all over it like a fish with a hobo stick.

It’s been a couple years since I last read A Million Miles; it hardly took a page for me to fall back in love with this man and his story. His sense of humor, his sincerity, his desire to transform a meaningless life into a thrilling one — for himself, for others.

Donald Miller’s first big book was Blue Like Jazz. A couple years and some less popular publishings later, a filmmaker approached him about turning that bestseller of spiritual essays into a movie.

But how exactly does one turn several scattered nonfiction essays into a story? That’s what Donald Miller himself wondered at first; the filmmaker knew what to do, though. Knew he’d have to take the story of young “Don” and give it — him — a couple tweaks.

He’d have to craft a fictional Donald Miller from the real, “nonfictional” Donald Miller.

Essentially, Donald Miller’s life needed to become less boring to be a good story. A better story.

And so, Donald Miller wrote A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, a book about how he “edited” his own life into a good story worth telling. After attending Robert McKee’s famed “Story” seminar, Miller amassed 11 words to describe every good story:

A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

THAT’S IT. 11 measly momentous words to change your life.

Because, see, a “good story” doesn’t merely apply to fictional tales of hobbits and horcruxes. A Million Miles isn’t a book about crafting the most compelling fictional characters and fictional plots and fictional resolutions and someday landing among the fictional New York Times bestsellers.

No. Not at all.

This is a book about how to live. Indeed, the same “rules” of a good fictional story apply also to our nonfictional human lives — heartbreaking inspiring stories all in themselves.

A Million Miles is cleverly organized into five sections. After an introduction, the following four sections are titled as follows:

1. A character.

2. A character who wants something.

3. A character who wants something and overcomes conflict.

4. A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

Oh my gosh, seriously, if you haven’t read this book you need to order it right now. I rarely proclaim something will change your life (while we’re on the subject…In-N-Out), but really, A Million Miles will cause you to reexamine your entire existence.

I remember sitting next to a girl on a plane once, and she was reading this very book. Needless to say: most exciting airplane conversation this introvert has ever had.

With one section already re-read, I can’t wait to dive back into the rest of my favorite book and rediscover the marks of a good life. A good story.

In the meantime, I have a homework assignment for y’all! Fun homework. Not Chemistry homework.

Watch this video. It perfectly demonstrates the aforementioned marks of a “good story.” Jarryd Wallace is actually a friend of my brother’s, and I even ran JV cross country with the guy back in the DAY.

As you watch these five minutes of raw glory, try to spot those 4 marks of a good story. Because good gosh, Jarryd Wallace certainly exhibits a good story:

Among countless chilling moments, my favorite might have occurred at 2:30 when Jarryd spoke of researching the Paralympic world record-holders, pointing to that computer screen and saying, “I want my name to be on this list.”

A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

The rest is history. His story.

As I re-dive into A Million Miles in these pre-Nashville weeks to come, I hope to unpack more of what it means to live a good story. I’m certain the Storyline conference itself will produce at least one or two illuminating blogs. I can’t wait to share more.

In the meantime, let’s dialogue, shall we?

Do you ever view your life like a good story? What do you “want”? What’s your “conflict”? What will it take to overcome that conflict and get what you want?

Also: have you read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years? Please tell me you have. Or please tell me you just ordered it or checked it out or borrowed it or stole it and left a note saying you’re sorry you’ll give it right back when you finish.

  • MLYaksh

    I didn’t use to see my story as good. I thought it was small and insignificant. I didn’t have any special conflicts from my perspective. And then, well… I guess you could say the vast emptiness inside of me quickly sucked in everything it could. Now, that’s my conflict- overcoming my past life that so strongly held onto my heart and soul for so long. What I want is to be completely free from it- and I know that I have this freedom in Christ. But I also know that I still have to fight this flesh until heaven.

    So my story- good, bad, whatever- will have its victory one day. And that’s what I hold onto as I strive with the conflict I face.

    • TMZ

      I think everyone has to go through a “darkness period” where they think ill of their stories or don’t even think much of their stories at all. Somewhere along the way, though, hopefully, AWAKENING occurs and we start to see the miracles and absolute beauty behind our stories. I too wrestle with that “past life” conflict; you’re not alone. Keep moving forward, brother! There’s much more glory to come. In this life and the next.

  • Ashley

    I have read it, but I really do not remember much about it at all. I have it on my bookshelf. Maybe I should pick it back up. Although I have a million other things on that to-read list…

    As for my life as story – certainly. Mostly anyway. What do I want? Ultimately, I want to love people (and travel the world, ha. ha.). My conflict is sin, selfish desire, finances, time (and that past life stuff mentioned in another comment – overcoming lies and stuff related to the past)… What will it take? Surrendering to God, I guess. Daily. Hourly. Whatever.

    • TMZ

      Loving people and traveling the world…you’re speaking my language!

  • Rebecka

    I’m so scared that if I answer these questions it’s going to be really depressing, but I’ll give it a shot. No, I don’t feel like my life is a good story, more like a really boring one. I want to connect with people, be there for others, be creative and travel but my conflict is a chronic illness that has made me housebound and often bedbound. It will take a miracle to overcome that. It often feels hopeless but God can redeem this too. My story isn’t over yet!

    • TMZ

      I appreciate your constant online encouragement, Rebecka! And I’m certain many others would echo that sentiment. Know that God can use you whether you’re bedridden or not. His reach and power knows no bounds. You’re right; your story isn’t over yet. Far from it.

      • Rebecka

        Thank you so much, Tom!

  • Zachary

    I have indeed read Mr. Millers mentioned book and I have many thoughts. I like about 90% of what he has to say, and I as a storyteller find myself preaching the same message of the importance of story and pursuing living better stories. Although, there are a few large watermelon seeds in his book that need to be spit out – most of them lie in the chapter talking about how Jesus does not change your present life only the next one. I find this to be not only heretical but down right discouraging.

    The other point I have is that I watched “Blue Like Jazz”, the movie of his life that they made a “better story” by making his life more interesting, and I couldn’t even finish the movie. It was not a good story in the slightest. And thus I lost some respect – not in the message, but in the teller.

    While I wholeheartedly agree with the eternal message of Story that Donald Miller stumbled upon here, I do not think he is the best man to speak on the manner (yet). There are far more experienced and authoritative voices in this arena that should not be overlooked first. Including classic heroes like G.K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien to more contemporaries like Robert McKee and N.D. Wilson among others.

    And even so, “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.” – C. S. Lewis

    • TMZ

      Dear me, our first significant divide! Well, maybe aside from your distaste for all sports and my grand affinity for baseball.

      How to handle this??

      I certainly wouldn’t discount the writings of Lewis, Chesterton, etc. or put Miller “above” them in any way. Maybe I’m slightly biased toward Donald Miller since he was largely responsible in prompting me to take a gamble on a new story out West. But I do very much love his style. Will have to re-read that chapter-in-question you mentioned, as I honestly do not recall it.

      As to the BLJ movie…there were some moments that I didn’t fully “get,” and Miller himself has admitted he didn’t completely love the finished project. But I appreciated the rawness of it. I found it so refreshing as a not-your-typical “Christian movie.” And I thought the last scene of the movie was just fantastic.