How to Tell a Good Story With Your Life – or – The Four Critical Elements of a Meaningful Life

Donald Miller

A couple years ago I released a book called “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” about editing my life for a major motion picture. The premise of the book was that the tools storytellers use to create better stories can also be used by the rest of us to live better lives.

On April 13th, the movie will be coming out and I’m feeling grateful, nervous and excited all at once. It’s also reminding me about the importance of actually living a good story rather than just telling one.

I thought I’d summarize some of the concepts from Storyline for those of you who haven’t read the book or been able to attend a conference.

The idea is actually pretty simple. To live a great story, our lives have to reflect the element of a great story. Here they are:

• Every story is built around a character or characters. This part is easy. By God’s design, you are the principal character of your story because you are the only character in any story you can control. You are the storyteller and the principal character all in one. The story may be about something other than you, but you have agency and to deny that is to tell a really boring story. The first of many keys to living a great life is to take full responsibility for our lives.

• The character has to want something. If the main character in the story doesn’t want something or if what they want is muddled, the story lacks direction and purpose. The same is true in life. When we want something we launch into the story question, that is “will the character get what they want.” But that’s not all. What we want needs to be good, self sacrificing and we have to want whatever it is we want more than we want glory or to feed our ego or even validation. When we find that thing we want, our story not only engages the world, it engages us and we become much more interested in life itself.

• Every character must go through conflict. Far from being a bad thing, conflict in story is a necessity. In America we live in a culture that avoids conflict but we do so to our own detriment. Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict. So when we choose our ambitions, they should be difficult and we should anticipate and even welcome conflict.

• Stories must resolve. In stories there’s a scene called a climax. A climactic scene will resolve all the conflict in the story in a single action. Life doesn’t really work this way, but having a visual scene in your mind that you can head toward is motivating. For instance, if you want to lose 30 pounds, don’t set that as a goal, make the goal finishing a marathon. Finishing a marathon is visual and much more motivating.

I’ve been planning my life this way for the past seven years or so and it’s made all the difference. I’ve certainly had a lot of conflict, but I’ve put my heart into my books, lost a ton of weight and have a strong vision for the future.

 * If you’d like to know more about planning your life like a story, consider joining us at a Storyline Conference. This year Storyline will be held in Portland, Nashville and Santa Barbara. You can learn more here.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He's helped thousands overcome a sense of meaninglessness by helping them create their Storyline life plan. If you're struggling with a sense of meaningless, pick up Storyline today. After studying story for years and successfully using the elements of story to engage customers, Don created StoryBrand, a process any business owner or marketing team can go through to create a communication script that will increase sales. Don is also the creator of the Storyline Productivity Schedule, a free daily schedule using modern psychology to increase a person's productivity. Don believes getting your story straight changes everything. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

  • Suesanne

    Don,

    I love your ‘mission’! I am so proud of you! You’re carrying this full speed, and it’s obvious your doing this with passion without seeking any self-glory!

    Several years ago, God tugged on my heart a similar mission, which I resisted for two years! You see, for years, I have watched immigrant women of a very traditional culture live unintentionally, without a purpose, without a ‘story’ to live/tell one day! It broke my heart, and finally, I started a ministry to help them see that they can make in impact in life, they can live more intentionally, even in a piligrims’ land! For three years now, it’s been a joy to see some women choose to live a better story! They aim to help other women who are less fortunate, and it’s very fulfilling to see!

    I would like to use your structured ‘How to tell a better story with you life – 4 elements’ to teach these women, it will be translated in another language, but used just as is above in your blog! Of course we will credited it to you, a wonderful American Author! Can I?

  • Micah

    Long time listener, first time caller…

    Having paid some attention to what I think is the development of the Donald Miller philosophy (not an academic term or implication of a separation from a ‘biblical’ philosophy), I struggle sometimes to marry this, what I’ll call, Storyline concept w/, what I’ll call, a Searching for God Knows What concept. Am fond of most both/and answers, but these two concepts for me, at times, contradict. Are ‘Four Critical Elements of a Meaningful Life’ somehow a formula enacted for an involuntary response from God?

    Not meant as criticism or passive aggressive lecturing. Just hopeful for further conversation…

  • Charlie

    Hey Don

    Question, should we be the main character of the story or God? Cause its God’s Big story right, and our story is a little part of his big one. Does that change this or are you keeping these seperate? I hope I dont sound like im attacking just wondering, what you think.

    • Don

      Not sure what you mean, Charlie. I believe God gives the pen to you and gives you agency to write whatever you want. I think there are billions of stories being told, and God has a story about His love for us, but God himself also created love stories, stories about families, stories about work. So why it sounds great to say all stories are about God, it’s just not practical or even possible. We tell stories WITH God, for sure. Can you tell me how, practically, every story you live, including making dinner is about God in your life? I hear people say things like this but when I look at their lives, they tell stories about their relationships, their pets, their jobs, and then they say things like “all stories are supposed to be about God” and it sounds nice but isn’t realistic…

      • Braeden

        This is a good point – thinking our stories must be directly about God is unattainable and minimizes our daily lives, when in fact it is the lives of people that God uses to tell his story indirectly…

        To echo a previous comment from Micah I have also been reading you for quite a while (back to the release of Through Painted Deserts). For sure the elements of story is a wonderful insight that you have presented in what seems to be a very original way (based on my readings of other thoughts on the same subject) that makes them applicable to our lives.

        My concern is not so much that the ideas in Searching For God Knows What and Storyline contradict (although I agree with Micah that there is an element of SFGKW that would bump up against the formulas presented in storyline, however helpful they may be) as it is a desire to hear you as a storyteller, which was what initially grabbed me as a reader with Through Painted Deserts and Blue Like Jazz.

        In previous books you have spoken of your love for fiction and poetry, I am wondering if there is any of this type of writing in your future? I think you are a gifted storyteller with an ability to evoke emotions in your readers with words that is unmatched in contemporary Christian writing.

        I guess my plea as a lover of your work is to hear more stories from you, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, as you explain philosophically the elements of story.

      • http://www.readerscouch.blogspot.com Eve

        Hi Don. So agree with you’re saying.

      • http://www.readerscouch.blogspot.com Eve

        Hi Don. So agree with what you’re saying.

  • AaronZ

    My best friend just read your book because a friend recommended it and he just told me he’s trying to write a new story for himself. So he is moving from Redding to LA to pursue his dreams. I’m excited! Thanks for inspiring us!

  • Elysha

    Hooray for April 13!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tellesgabriel Gabriel Telles Mathias

    Hi Don. I Would like to send you an email from something I wrote, which has the testimony of the greatest discovery I ever made. Something that involves my story, God and many people. Something I discovered while reading this book.
    Would like to share this with you, I think you would enjoy. How can i do this?

    Come visit us here in brasil someday. (:

  • Cynthia Selden

    Don,
    First of all safe travels on your adventure. I can’t wait to see the movie!! I just signed up yesterday for your Nashville Story Line. I am so excited!!!! I always wanted to go to the Portland one but work schedule and trouble getting way out to the west coast prevented me from attending in the past. Although Nashville is a long way from BUffalo New York, its a lot closer than Portland!!! I just knew God would make it happen and I look forward to writing my better story. Thanks!!! Again travel safe and enjoy the journey!!!

  • http://www.SendOutCards.com/krisporter Kristine Porter

    One of my favorite things about stories is when there’s a Surprise outcome to a conflict, twisting, turning, and keeping me guessing. I kinda like that in my life too.

    Thanks for pointing out the formula!

  • Mark

    Don,
    “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” Has impacted my wife and I tremendously. The elements you have shared in this book, have convicted and motivated us both to purposefully live better Story.
    Thank you, and I hope to say thanks in person someday.
    From Beaverton,
    Mark

  • http://www.facebook.com/sherribaierl sherri b.

    I dig the goals not being ideas but a destination thing. That makes sense to me and explains why certain things just seem to work out and others don’t.

    I look forward to seeing BLJ in Chicago next week!

    My prayer, for you and the team, will be that you are able to be present and to enjoy every moment of this whirlwind.

    • Sher

      I just loved chasing my best bud around the office. Ryan :)

  • http://www.garysharpe.com Gary Sharpe

    Don

    Hey from Kitchener (near Toronto). I attended Storyline Conference in Portland last year, and it has been a huge help to me. I’ve started to write a better story by thinking of others before myself, bought an old farm house to renovate, and have been working on key relationships. I’m becoming a big brother after checking out the mentoring project, and I’m working on a team to bring your mentoring project concept to Canada (meeting with John Sowers later this month). I still have a long way to go, but I’m seeing things in a different light. I really appreciate your writing, and can’t wait for your next book bro. Thank you.

    Gary

  • http://hurricanes-and-trainwrecks.blogspot.com Amy

    A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is working magic inside my head and my heart. I think you’ve illustrated a deep truth with your words; one I’ve stumbled on and have lived into a few times in my life without understanding or knowing that I actually had something to do with it and it wasn’t just up to chance. When my story was purposeful I felt that my life had meaning. Just now, I feel like I’m lost and wandering in my own private wilderness. How comforting and exciting to think that I can find myself by living a better story!

    Thank you for sharing this truth.

  • Pingback: Living a Better Story « Cary Chronicles

  • Lena

    I first heard you talk about this about 2 years ago; I realized my story was pretty much like everyone else’s that I knew, making it not particularly interesting. I learned to surrender my plans to God and in a year and a half I’ve been on more nail-biting adventure than in all my life. God’s plans = more exciting, fulfilling life. Who knew? I thought I knew the best way to direct my life. Ok, still not book worthy, but it’s better than I was and I’m hooked on having purpose.

    I appreciate the simple sense you manage to speak into the absurdity that would pass me by if you didn’t just point, make me take a second look and think for a minute.

  • Pingback: The Weekly Mixed Tape: Snail Mail, Stories, Goats, and More « STORY WROUGHT

  • Pingback: 8 End of the Week Links | OpenArms.tv

  • Pingback: Three Keys to Create a Better Story for Your Life | F. Remy Diederich

  • Pingback: Story « jubilee

  • Pingback: 5 Luscious Links: Top Articles Worth Reading This Weekend | Roman's Blog

  • http://classicalquest.blogspot.com/ Adriana @ Classical Quest

    I loved A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

    Thank you.

  • Pingback: 5 Ways to Overcome Pain Before It Overcomes You - Joshua Lancette

  • Pingback: On Standing Here and Dreaming of There « STORY WROUGHT

  • Pingback: How the Movie The Return of the King Calls Us to Worship « The Year of Living Spiritually

  • Pingback: How the Movie The Return of the King Calls Us to Worship | The Neighborhood Café

  • Pingback: Boredom, pain, and purpose | The Return from Exile

  • Pingback: How to Plan an Online Fundraising Campaign - Cause Artist