How to Make Yourself Write a Better Story
BookTrends - A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
By: Donald Miller|Published: September 30, 2009 5:26 PM
A lot of people think a writer has to live in order to write, has to meet people and have a rich series of experiences or his work will become dull. But that is drivel.
It’s an excuse a writer uses to take the day off, or the week or the month off for that matter. The thinking is, if we go play Frisbee in the park we’re going to have a thousand words busting out of us when we get back to the house. We’re going to write all kinds of beautiful prose about playing Frisbee. It’s never worked for me. Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer while still in her mother’s womb, wrote one of her books in a concrete cell. She says most of what a writer needs to really live they can find in a book.
People who live good stories are too busy to write about them. Nobody ever strapped a typewriter to the back of an elephant and wrote a novel while hunting wild game. Nobody except for Hemingway. But let’s not talk about Hemingway.
I only say this because part of the reason my life had become uninspiring is I’d sat down to earn a living. Literally, I sat in a chair and typed words. And that’s fine, because I like the work, and it pays the rent. But Jordan was right: my life was a blank page, and all I was putting on the page were words. I didn’t want to live in words anymore; I wanted to live in sweat and pain. I wanted some make-out sessions and perhaps a little trouble with the law. I wanted to find my dad, if for no other reason than to mark it off my to-do list. It kept bugging me.
But the want was not enough. My desire to live a better story didn’t motivate me to do anything. I kept sitting down and writing more and more boring words into my life. And when I wasn’t sitting down writing boring words, I was sitting down watching television. Steven King calls the television “the glass teat,” and I was suckling on it for all its sugar. I was licking the glass and pawing at it like a kitten.
My friend Bob, the guy who writes down all his memories, hasn’t seen a movie since Who Framed Roger Rabbit. No kidding. He’s too busy living actual stories to watch them on a screen.
I suppose it was the conversation with Jordan that finally did it, that finally helped me understand how to tell a story with my life. It worked just like writing a book, you know. You just sit down and do the work as faithful as a plumber. You never feel like writing any more than a plumber feels like fixing a pipe, but just like him, you make a plan and start in on the messy work of making a story.
So that’s when I started creating a few different stories at the same time. One story was about finding my father, the other was about chasing a girl, and still another was about, well, riding my bicycle.
That summer, the summer after the winter we started writing the movie, the Tour de France was being broadcast on television. And for some reason it affected me differently than watching other sports. I mean, when I watch football it doesn’t make me want to play football, and baseball doesn’t make me want to play baseball, but for whatever reason, watching Lance Armstrong win his seventh consecutive Tour de France made me want to ride a bike. I figure if a guy can be diagnosed with cancer and overcome cancer and then win seven Tours then start an organization trying to beat cancer itself, the least I could do would be to get off the couch. So I started riding a bike. Actually, I didn’t really start riding a bike. I just kind of lifted my legs a little and made a circular motion with my feet while sitting in a chair watching the Tour d France. I made believe I was winning. Like I said, I live in daydreams.
• • •
Here’s the truth about telling stories with your life. It’s going to sound like a great idea, and you are going to get excited about it, and then when it comes time to do the work, you’re not going to want to do it. It’s like that with writing books, and it’s like that with life. 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. Nobody wakes up and starts chasing a bad guy or dismantling a bomb unless something forces them to do so. The bad guys just robbed your house and are running off with your last roll of toilet paper, or the bomb is strapped to your favorite cat. It’s that sort of thing that gets a character moving.
The rule exists in story because it’s a true thing about people. 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. And even if they secretly want for something better.
I heard an interview on the radio with a woman who worked with people in domestic abuse situations. She said most women who come to her for help go back to the situation they come out of, back to the man who abused them. When the interviewer asked why, the woman said that even though most women had family they could escape to and friends who would take them in, they returned to the abusive man because the situation, as bad as it might be, was familiar. People fear change, she said. 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. And then the woman said this: “The 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 they are familiar with. So they stay.”
• • •
At the end of Act I of our screenplay, Don has to choose between a college he wants to attend and another his family wants him to attend, mostly because they’d offered a scholarship. It came time to move the story forward, and I recommended that Don get in his car and drive off to the school he wanted to attend, ignoring the demands of his family. Steve asked why Don would do this, and I said he would do this because he wanted to. It seemed obvious to me. But both Steve and Ben shook their heads.
“That’s not how it works, man,” Ben said, pushing his hair back and nodding. “Characters don’t really choose to move. They have to be forced.”
When he said that, I thought about those women I’d heard about on the radio.
“How do we get Don to go?” I asked Ben.
I was thinking about women, but I was also thinking about myself sitting in my chair watching the Tour de France, wishing I was out riding a bike, all the while completely able to ride a bike but for some reason not doing it. I thought about my father too, and how I wasn’t moving on that story. And I thought about a specific girl I wasn’t going after, and realized that the principle that characters do not want to change applies to more than fiction.
“We make him go,” Ben said.
“We blow something up,” Steve said. “We get somebody pregnant or drop a plane out of the sky.”
“But that doesn’t work in real life,” I said.
Ben and Steve gave me a confused look. “We’re not writing real life,” Steve said.
“I know,” I said, “right.”
I stopped talking. I didn’t want to explain. So Steve and Ben and I created an event in our story that forced Don to make a decision. It wasn’t a real explosion, but it was a sort of social explosion, something that wouldn’t allow him to stay in the same place anymore. He got in his car and drove away. Because of the explosion, he was beating the steering wheel with his fist when he drove away. Our story had started.
• • •
“Bourbon is whiskey made in
“It’s more than that,” Jordan insisted. “It has to do with how they make it. One is made with oats and the other with wheat or something.”
“Wheat’s the same as oats,” I said.
Steve said they aren’t the same. “One makes oatmeal and the other makes bread.”
Then Ben and I went out on the porch again, smoking our pipes. We were drinking bourbon, thinking about the screenplay. We were feeling about our characters as though we knew them, and we were somber a little because Don had left home. We knew he was going off on his story, probably to get hurt a little. We knew it would end well, but you don’t feel that when you push a character into his story. You only feel what he is feeling at that moment.
Jordan came out to join us. He was wearing his ARMY shirt and the same sandals he always wears.
“It’s going well?” Jordan asked.
“It’s going fine,” Ben said. “We just created our inciting incident.”
“That’s good,” Jordan said. “It’s all started now,” he said, toasting us with his glass.
“So the inciting incident is when the plane falls out of the sky or something?” I asked for clarification. Ben looked at Jordan as though he couldn’t say the answer exactly.
“It’s just an event that forces your character to move,” Jordan said, shrugging his shoulders.
Ben agreed. “It’s the thing that happens to throw your character into their story.”
“And that’s how they change?” I asked.
Ben looked at me seriously, as though he wanted to ask what I was really thinking about. But he didn’t. Jordan said the story is what changes the character, not the inciting incident. “The inciting incident is how you get them to do something,” Ben said. “It’s the doorway through which they can’t return, you know. The story takes care of the rest.”
• • •
We’d watch movies when we weren’t writing. We’d fall asleep in the living room with the fire going. I hadn’t seen Casablanca, so Steve rented it at a video store on Woodstock. I laid down in front of the television and got lost in the story. It moves slower than modern stories, but I liked it. I liked the black and white, the softness around the characters, the actors moving around behind the principal characters like stage actors, moving around in exaggerated motions. I liked Rick, the way he talked to his friends as though he could crush them but chose to protect them.
When Isla walked into the bar, I heard Ben say “inciting incident” under his breath. And it was true, because once she walked into the bar, Rick’s life changed and there was nothing he could do about it. His girl was back, and he never thought he’d see her again. The inciting incident had disrupted his comfortable life, and he would naturally seek comfort again, thus creating a story from discomfort to comfort.
Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen.
• • •
When Steve and Ben left, I watched the last week of the Tour de France. But I wasn’t pedaling my feet in the air anymore. I went down to Veloce cycles and bought a bike. I bought some stupid pants to wear, and some shoes. It wasn’t an inciting incident, exactly, but it was something. I needed something that would force me to ride the bike, and I started looking for whatever opportunity that might be. I pulled a group of friends together to ride in the Portland Bridge Pedal, eighteen thousand cyclists crossing all the major bridges in Portland, thirty miles, in the world’s largest peloton. It was awesome. I’d executed a little inciting incident and lived a little story. I was doing something.
I didn’t want to pretend anymore. I wanted to live some stories. I called my mom and asked her how long it had been since she’d heard from my father. We’d never talked about my father. In thirty years, we’d never spoken of him. She got quiet and then said she hadn’t heard from him in decades. She said she feared he was dead. I asked if she had his Social Security number, and she said she might; she’d look.
None of this was an inciting incident, but speaking out loud about my father, just talking about him, was the start of something. I felt like a writer putting some characters on the page, playing with concepts, mapping out a story.
Excerpted from A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Copyright © 2009 by Donald Miller. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson, a registered trademark of Thomas Nelson, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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