What Is A Good Story? My Review of A Million Miles In A Thousand Years by Don Miller

I can always tell when Thomas Nelson is serious about promoting a book. As a member of their Book Review Bloggers program, I get access to review copies of books in exchange for writing a minimum 200 word review of a book. They tell me that the review can be positive or negative. So far, I’d say this program seems to be working out for both myself and Thomas Nelson. Normally, a book review blogger is only allowed to have one book at a time, but every now and again, they’ll release a book that they allow a blogger to get if he or she already has a book out for review, and the review of this “extra” book must be posted on a certain date.

This was one of those books.

I struggled while reading this book with how exactly to review it. The book is non-fiction, yet it is also about stories. It’s about how the author learned about stories while trying to write a screenplay of another one of his books. Books and movies are obviously different. An author has access to the character’s mind, and can tell the reader that the character is angry, happy, sad, etc. In a movie, the audience does not have access to the mind of the character, so emotions have to be shown. That’s just one bit that I picked up from this book.

The first thing I’ll say is that I liked this book. I liked it a lot. It’s an easy read, but don’t confuse easy read with non-challenging. This book challenged me quite a bit. I read it in about 3 days. I read the first 110 pages while I was upgrading one of my computers to Windows 7. The chapters are very short and can be read through quickly.

The book starts with the author, Don, getting an early morning phone call from somebody interested in turning one of his other books into a movie. Don acts very simple minded, but sooner or later a contract is struck and he begins writing a script with two other men. Don, as a writer, seems to have trouble understanding some of the decisions that have to be made to put his story on screen. This launches him on a journey of discovery of what makes a good story.

Don begins by following the advice of one of the movie writers (I’m not sure what else to call them, producers maybe?) to attend a seminar put on by Robert McKee called Story. After the seminar, Don shares events from his life as he goes on a journey of discovery as to what exactly makes a good story. He explains concepts like “a character is what he does”, a character arc, conflict, etc. He shares some friends of his who are living great stories. As he goes along, he grows and changes.

As I began to near the end of the book, I had a sudden revelation about how it was progressing. Don was telling his story, and taking the reader along for the ride. But I also realized that Don had progressed himself. He had grown as a character within his own story. He began as that guy who always has something funny to say. He makes everybody around him laugh, and people genuinely enjoy being with him, but deep down everybody knows he’s only joking all the time to cover up an insecurity. As Don progresses as a character in his own story, I realized toward the end of the book that he’s grown into sort of a sage. He’s not that much older, but he’s wiser and more experienced and no longer telling little jokes all the time to cover up his insecurities. He’s somebody worth sitting at the feet of while learning from him.

Along the way, Don also addressed a lot of the human condition. He took a quick detour in one chapter to apparently go back to the Robert McKee seminar. I almost felt like I was in the room while this section took place. It seemed to answer so many questions I have had about why life doesn’t always seem to go right:

Robert McKee put down his coffee cut and leaned onto the podium. He put his hand on his forehead and wiped back his gray hair. He said, “You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.” He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before. “You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.”

He got louder. “Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.”

His voice was like thunder now. “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.” (p180)

For some reason, I found that to be the most powerful message of the book.

Don explored in another section why most people go looking for an easier story. I came to realize that I often do this as well. It’s easier for me to watch TV, or endlessly check RSS feeds on my computer, or subscribe to as many newsletters as possible, than it is to go out and live a story.

Don also explores the difference between a good story and an epic. I saw why stories like Lord of the Rings are epics. Lord of the Rings is by far my favorite story. I say story because I saw the movies before I read the book. It truly was an epic. It called characters into a story far greater than any of them could ever be, and called them to risk greatly. And in the end, all changed for the better. Well, all the ones we cared about did. The evil ones got what they had coming. But it also didn’t display evil as a two dimensional subject. Even Gollum was a character wrapped up in conflict.

I’ve always believed that a good book changes you in some way. Either it teaches you something new, or takes you on a journey, or maybe makes you look at a subject in a new light. Somehow, if it’s a good book, something in your life or mind should change. I hope that I will come away from A Million Miles in a Thousand Years with a new outlook on story. I’m going to look at the story that my life is telling, the story that I’m giving my wife and boys to live in, and maybe find a way to tell it better.

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