A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller may be my favorite book. The plot became a compass during my quarter life crisis and inspired my own journey through South America and biking across the US.
Don grew up a Christian and struggled with his faith. I relate with how he describes living in his own fantasies instead of living a real life. The analogy he makes between a good story and a good life is a strong metaphor for how to live.
The elements he writes about in his book, memorable scenes, inciting incidents, character arc, positive and negative turns, saving the cat, and inviting others into your story, is a beautiful framework for writing and rewriting your own personal story.
My favorite quotes are below:
I got a big head about it for a while and thought I was an amazing writer or something, but I've written books since that haven't sold, so I'm insecure again and things are back to normal. -- pg 9
"In a pure story there is purpose in every scene, in every line of dialogue. A movie is going somewhere"...
I felt defensive as though the scenes in my life weren't going anywhere.
"What Steve is trying to say," Ben spoke up, reaching for the jar of olives, "is that your real life is boring." -- pg 25
In creating the fictional Don, I was creating the person I wanted to be, the person worth telling stories about. It never occurred to me that I could re-create my own story, my real life story, but in an evolution I had moved toward a better me. -- pg 29
Nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That's what make a story good. -- pg 31
The thing about death is it reminds you the story we are telling has finality. My uncle's funeral was beautiful. I flew down to join the family, and while people were certainly sad, there was also a sense we were burying a good man, which feels different than burying an average man. My uncle's life was celebrated at his funeral. -- pg 36
My uncle told a good story with his life, but I think there was such a sadness at his funeral because his story wasn't finished. If you aren't telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died. -- pg 38
The elements that made a story meaningful were the same that made a life meaningful...if story is just life without the meaningless scenes -- I wondered if life could be lived more like a good story in the first place. I wondered whether a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally. -- pg 39
Good stories don't happen by accident, I learned. They are planned. -- pg 46
A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. -- pg 48
He hadn't mapped out a story for his family. And so his daughter had chosen another story, a story in which she was wanted, even if she was only being used. In the absence of a family story, she'd chosen a story in which there was risk and adventure, rebellion and independence. "She's not a bad girl," my friend said. "She was just choosing the best story available to her." -- pg 51
I've wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don't want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgement. 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.
But I've noticed something. I've never walked out of a meaningless movie thinking all movies are meaningless. I only thought the movie I walked out on was meaningless. I wonder, then, if when people say life is meaningless, what they really mean is their lives are meaningless. I wonder if they've chosen to believe their whole existence is unremarkable and are projecting their dreary live son the rest of us. -- pg 60
If the story is going to be good, Don is going to have to face some stuff he doesn't want to face. -- pg 64
I knew a character had to face his greatest fears. That's the stuff of good story...most of our greatest fears are relational. It's all that stuff about forgiveness an risking rejection and learning to love. --pg 66
If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.
If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He's a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn't change, the story hasn't happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just a condensed version of life, then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another....
He didn't know what the point of the journey was, but he did believe we were designed to search for and find something. And he wondered out loud life if the point wasn't the search but the transformation the search creates. -- pg 68-69
A character is what he does...the stories we tell ourselves are very different from the stories we tell the world. -- pg 73
The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure, to take action or another in the pursuit of his desire.
Of all the principles I'd learn about story while working with Steve and Ben, the idea that a character is what he does remains the hardest to actually live.
I live in fantasies. I live terrific lives in my head. It's part of the creative imagination, to daydream, to invent stories. -- pg 74
I wondered what a show might look like if a camera followed me around. I wondered what people would think. That is, setting aside my daydreams and wants and thoughts and revealing my life through an objective camera lens. The thought was humbling. In truth, I was a person who daydreamed and then wrote down his daydreams. Sure, there were other characters, friends, and business associates, but I wasn't living any kind of sacrifice. My entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from interruption of my daydreams...I needed to live a real story with real action. -- pg 77
I don't know why we need stories, but we always have. I'd say it's just that we like them, that they're entertaining, but it's more than that. It's a thing in us that empties like a stomach and then needs to be filled again. -- pg 80
A trick storytellers use to engage an audience. In the first twenty minutes of the story, Ben said, your protagonist has to do something good. -- pg 81
"If he didn't do all those things," Steve said, "we wouldn't care whether he went twelve rounds or not. We'd have gotten to the end of the movie and not cared a bit. We wouldn't know why we didn't care; we'd just say it wasn't a very good movie. But the reason would have been that the guy who won in the end wasn't really a good guy. He was just a normal guy. -- pg 83
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...
We just created our inciting incident.. It's the thing that happens to throw your character into their story... It's the doorway through which they can't return...
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...
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. -- pg 100-106
Why should I get into shape when there isn't a story giving me a good reason? But the situation was different now. I needed to get into shape because I didn't want to be humiliated in front of the girl. And I wanted that great ending, arriving at Macchu Picchu at sunrise, having crossed mountains to get there.
And Dave taught me a lot about living a good story. He taught me that progress, no matter how slow, is all that matters. -- pg 112
It's true that while ambition creates fear, it also creates the story. But it's a good trade, because as soon as you point toward a horizon, life no longer feels meaningless. And suddenly there is risk in your story and a question about whether you'll make it. You have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I'd be lying if I said it was all fun. I definitely lost a few hours of sleep imaging myself collapsing on the Inca Trail, but it beat eating ice cream and watching television. I was doing something in real life. I'd stood up and pointed toward a horizon, and now I had to move, whether I wanted to or not...
I also noticed that if I paused the DVD on any frame, I could point toward any major character and say exactly what that person wanted. No character had a vague ambition. It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want. -- pg 113
Probably every other person, faces resistance when trying to create something good...resistance...is a sure sign that you are supposed to do the thing in the first place. -- pg 115
A story is made up of turns, Robert McKee says. Once an ambition has been decided, a positive turn is an event that moves the protagonist closer to the ambition, and a negative turn moves the protagonist away from his ambition. All stories have both. If a story doesn't have negative turns, it's not an interesting story. A protagonist who understands this idea lives a better story. He doesn't give up when he encounters a setback, because he knows that every story has both positive and negative turns. -- pg 119
The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person's story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don't want anything, we are living boring stories. -- pg 124
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 the meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. -- pg 155
The greatest stories, Steve told me, are the ones in which the character's very life is at stake. There needs to be a question as to whether the character will make it, whether he will defeat the enemy or the enemy will defeat him.
The second element that makes a story epic, he said, was the ambition had to be sacrificial. The protagonist has to be going through pain, risking his very life, for the sake of somebody else. -- pg 156-157
The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point of a story is never about the ending, remember. It's about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle. -- pg 178
The story of the forest is better than the story of the tree. -- pg 198
When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. -- pg 206
When we look back on our lives, what we will remember are the crazy things we did, the times we worked harder to make a day stand out... a good movie has memorable scenes, and so does a good life...
I don't think memorable scenes help a story make sense. Other principles accomplish that. What memorable scenes do is punctuate the existing rise and fall of a narrative. The ambition of getting Darius a better wheelchair had the makings of a terrific story, but it's the way in which they got there that I will never forget. And neither will Darius. -- pg 209-213
It wasn't necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything. -- pg 231
A good storyteller doesn't just tell a better story, though. He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too. -- pg 236
We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must exist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. 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. -- pg 248