How to live a great story

What would your life be like if you could write your own story?

Donald Miller, the author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, wrestled with just that question. As a writer, he knows all the techniques of character development, plot twists, and juxtaposing actions, scenes and conflicts that tell the kind of story people want to read.

If your life was made into a movie, would it be worth watching?

After writing a successful memoir, Don’s life stalled and he found himself unwilling to get out of bed, avoiding responsibility and even questioning the meaning of life. But when a pair of producers proposed turning his book into a movie, he discovered the power of editing his own life’s storyline to create a new life engaging risk, courting possibility and discovering meaning.

How would your life change if you could determine your own trajectory?

“Good storytellers speak something into nothing,” Miller says. Where there is no story, or a poor one, the storyteller introduces new elements and invites other people into the story to change reality and create a better story. Yet a great story is not merely a tale well-told, or even a life well-lived, but one that inspires its listeners to become a part of it—who grow more alive simply to have shared the experience. And in every such story are found the same cogs that compel the heart and mind and life to a gratifying conclusion. Plot them in yours:

1. Transformative characters. If the protagonist doesn’t change, there isn’t a story to be told. What would we have without a transformed Ebenezer Scrooge, Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker? Or those heroes from real life like Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel and Princess Diana? To reach the preferred epilogue of your story, how must you transform?

2. Inciting incidents. Characters don’t choose to change—they must be forced. An incident must induce an unavoidable one-way passage for the character. In Groundhog Day, self-absorbed TV weatherman Phil Connors is trapped in reliving the same day every day until he finally learns to turn his attention to meeting the needs of other people in his life, and in doing so, finds happiness within. What will it take to change you?

3. Story turns. Positive turns move the protagonist closer to his desires, negative turns carry him away. Without them, the story is boring. In The Untouchables, Eliot Ness busts an illegal alcohol shipment on the Canadian border and obtains a ledger that could be the key to convicting Al Capone on tax evasion (positive). However, his team’s success is short-lived as their key witness is soon killed (negative). How will you advance through your inevitable life turns? Your attitudes and choices shape the difference in your story between miserable and magnificent.

4. Memorable scenes. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout and her brother go to the jailhouse where their father is guarding the accused. And while he’s telling them to go on home, a gang arrives to seize and lynch Tom Robinson, despite Atticus’s stand against them. But when Scout recognizes one of the fathers and talks with him cordially, she innocently defuses the mob’s entire motivation. The men disperse, and she saves Tom’s life that night. Make your moments meaningful to become memorable; make them intentional and they can become pivotal.

5. Overcoming conflicts. The character wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. In Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables, the personal sacrifice of Jean Valjean as he endures years of prison, poverty, hardship, malevolence, struggle and war nearly consumes him many times over, but he ultimately gains contentment and dies a happy man.

You are such a life-writer. You determine your personal narrative and story arc, your transformation through life turns, and how you overcome conflict to get that which you desire.

What will your life be like now that you will write your own memorable story?

MasterPoint: My future is a blank page. I determine what I write on it.