Book Reviews

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

by Donald Miller

Summary Notes by Doug Smith

Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years living those stories and expect our lives to feel meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either. Here’s what I mean by that:

I started thinking differently about life [and about story] when I met a couple of filmmakers who wanted to make a film about a memoir I had written. The most important element in a movie is the story. Its all about the story. In a story, you arrange life into an understandable series of events so when the credits roll, people feel satisfied. Music obeys form and structure – there are principles a musician adheres to – without which this is just noise: a dump truck with a jackhammer in the distance. So, it is with a story.

I wondered whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.

The thing about death is it reminds you the story you are telling has finality. A good story is “A Character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” The same elements that make a movie meaningful are the ones that make a life meaningful. I knew a character had to face his greatest fears. That’s the stuff of a good movie.

I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness. Your life is a blank page. You write on it.

If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story and put us in the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it means you matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you. 

I think life is staggering and we’re just used to it. We are like spoiled children, no longer impressed with the gifts we are given…it’s just another sunset, another rainstorm moving in over the mountain, just another child being born, just another funeral. I wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants. [Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. …]

The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” It is in there two hundred times.

Most of our greatest fears are relational. It is all that stuff about forgiveness and risking rejection and learning to love. We think stories are about getting money and security, but the truth is, it all comes down to relationships. Once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don’t have a choice. Not living a better story would like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die, and it’s not a natural to want to die.

Humans are alive for the purpose of journey, a kind of three-act structure.

They are born and spend several years discovering themselves and the world, then plod through a long middle in which they are compelled to search for a mate and reproduce and also create stability out of natural instability, and then they find themselves at the ending that seems to be designed for reflection. I wondered if the point wasn’t the search, but the transformation that the search creates. I wondered if we were designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we were meant to live through was designed to change us. The point of the story is the character arc, the change.

In the beginning of the story, the protagonist has to do something good. He can be crabby and have a drinking problem and even be a bit of a jerk, but unless he does something good, the audience won’t want things to work out for him, and they will lose interest in the story. We have to see that the protagonist has a good heart … he has to save a cat. [The author gives an example: Rocky and the good will he generates in the first 20 minutes of the film.]

People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen.

But joy costs pain. A general rule in creating stories is that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced to change. Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn’t all that comfortable. People fear change. For people in an abusive relationship, though their situations may be terrible, at least they have a sense of control, at least they know what to expect. Change presents a world of variables that are largely out of their control. Women in these situations are afraid to choose a better story because, though their current situation might be bad, at least it’s a bad story they are familiar with. So they stay.

Characters don’t really choose to move. They are forced.

The way they are forced, is that there is an “inciting incident”. An inciting incident is an event that forces your character to move. It’s the thing that happens to throw your character into their story. It is the story that changes the character, not the inciting incident. The inciting incident is how you get them to do something. It is the doorway through which they cannot return. Perhaps the reason we avoid having a clear ambition is because the second we stand up and point toward the horizon, you realize how much there is to lose.

If the story doesn’t have negative turns, it is not an interesting story.

Every story has both positive and negative turns. Nobody writes his or her own story in real life. While we control our destiny, it’s limited control in so many ways. We can control only what we do and say, what choices we make, what words we say. The rest is up to fate. And so life has positive and negative turns. And you rarely see them coming.

I found myself wanting even better stories. And that’s the thing you realize when you organize your life into the structure of a story. You will get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you are living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you have been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. The more practice stories I lived, the more I wanted an epic to climb inside of and see through until its end.

If a story is “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it,” an epic story is “A character who wants something that is very difficult such that his/her very life is in jeopardy and what he/she wants is for the sake of someone else…it is sacrificial.”

The mountains [we climb] call us into greater stories. I sat on the rocks by the water and wondered what sort of story I would tell with my life.

The point of the story is never about the ending, remember. It’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.

I think when most people give up on their stories is when they come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get out in the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can’t see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if paddling is moving them forward. Note of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouses, and they go looking for an easier story.

You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.

You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge; the marriage is over now; the dream is over; nothing good can come from this. 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 is the conflict that changes a person.

So much of our lives are spent trying to avoid conflict. Half the commercials on TV are selling something that will make life easier. Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life.

Every conflict, no matter how hard, comes back to bless the protagonist if he/she will face his/her fate with courage.

We are a tree in a story about the forest.

The story about the forest is better than the story of the tree. I sat by the fire until the sun came up and asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it meant to be a tree in that story.

I am convinced the most fantastical moment in a story, the point when all tension is finally relieved, doesn’t actually happen in real life.

I can’t figure out how a human life actually climaxes so that everything on the other side of a particular moment is made to be okay. It happens all the time in the movies and books, but it won’t happen to me – and I’m sorry to say, it won’t happen to you either. Maybe the reason we like stories so much is because they deliver wish fulfillment. Maybe we sit in the dark and shovel sugar into our mouths because in so many stories everything is made right, and we secretly long for that ourselves. I don’t believe utopia is going to happen. I don’t believe we are going to be rescued.

Do I still think there will be a day when all wrongs are made right, when our souls find the completion they are looking for? I do. But when all things are made right, it won’t be because of some preacher or snake oil salesman or politician or writer making promises in his book. I think, instead, this will be done by Jesus. And it will be at a wedding. And there will be a feast.

Each positive and negative turn shapes our character. A story shapes our moral compass and mine has changed from cynicism to hope.

Write a good story, take someone with you and let God help. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before each individual. Great stories give life to greater stories. Here’s to the hope the next one is yours.