“This story gets me.”
That’s what I said when I first read Blue Like Jazz. In 2003, Donald Miller released a book entitled Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It became a bestseller and resonated with a generation. I was one of many who was moved by Miller’s semi-autobiographical work, finding myself in Miller’s essays.
Several years later, a couple filmmakers approached Miller about turning his bestseller into a movie. As he learned what it took to make a great film, Miller encountered the work of Robert McKee. McKee is the guru of Hollywood screenwriting and his book, Story, is a 500-page summary of what makes stories great. (If you want to read more about what Miller learned while turning his memoir into a major motion picture, check out his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.)
As I was reading A Million Miles with a friend, trying to figure out what kind of stories we wanted to live, we encountered Miller’s definition of story. Influenced by McKee, Miller simplified story down to “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
If you take this simple definition, you can begin to make sense of the plot at the heart of your favorite novels, plays, and movies. We’ve all been engrossed in a tale of a hero who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.
The Power of Conflict in Story
What we don’t often focus on is the essential role of conflict. The compelling force in our favorite stories is the conflict, the uncertainty that our beloved character will actually get what they desperately desire.
Think about it. In Star Wars, without his father pursuing him, Luke Skywalker would have two hands. Without her struggle with her dark powers, Elsa would have never sang “Let It Go” in Frozen. It was his father’s death, self-imposed exile, and embrace of Hakuna Matata which brought Simba to a place where he was ready to become The Lion King. Overcoming the obstacles on the journey to deliver the ring to Mordor transformed The Lord of the Rings‘ hero, Frodo Baggins.
While we often ignore the essential role of conflict, we also underestimate the role of failure in our stories. As we battle conflict, we will fail and be disappointed. If you’ve never failed in life, then I wonder if you’ve ever really worked on or pursued your dreams. Failure overwhelms us. We often lose heart because we believe failure is final. The truth is failure is not final and it is rarely fatal. Contrary to popular opinion, failure is an event, not a person. You may have failed, but you are not a failure! But, your story will be defined by what you do with failure.
Failure and Our Story
When have you overcome failure in the past? Have you ever bounced back from what seemed fatal? Knowing your story and allowing it to inform your pursuit of your dreams, ambitions and calling can save you from discouragement and quitting. Your past experiences with conflict can inform your present struggles.
I’ve learned a lot about story, conflict and failure via my podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts is The Moment with Brian Koppelman. A writer, producer and filmmaker, Koppelman interviews really interesting people. A great interviewer, Koppelman leads his guests to explore their own inflection points – the moments that changed their lives or defined their future. (My favorites are both with Seth Godin, Jon Acuff, Chuck Todd, Chris Fowler and Paul Giamatti).
I’ve listened to many episodes and in each instance, the guest describes how a season of adversity and struggle produced opportunity. They connect with the preparation they’d undergone before that challenging moment. Eventually, they bounced back from failure or emerged from conflict, discovering something about themselves or the world which translated into future success.
This is the case with guests on The Moment, but what about you? Do you know your inflection points? If Koppleman called you for an interview, what stories would share with him?
An Announcement About Story
Like you, I know some people who are living really compelling stories. They want something and they’re overcoming conflict to get it. For some time, I’ve been feeling the urge to expand this platform to introduce you to these kinds of voices. I want to share more real-life stories, in order to help you overcome fear and live with greater courage and hope.
Beginning this Thursday, October 1, I’m launching a new feature on this site. Every week, I will share a brief interview with a friend of mine – someone I’ve met in person or online – who teaches us about fear, courage and hope. I have already lined up some incredible people – authors, an opera singer, an entrepreneur, a creative director, a photographer, a business leader and more! If you’re subscribed to my email list, you’ll receive one of these features each Thursday, in addition to my weekly post on Tuesday. You can subscribe to that list here and I’ll send you my ebook for free!
My first interviewee is Mary DeMuth, a prolific author and speaker. Mary is incredible. Her powerful honesty and vulnerability is making a huge difference in the world. You’ll love getting to know Mary!
What is your story?
Turning the focus back to you, I want you to consider this question. If every great story includes a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it, what is your story? How would you put your story into Donald Miller’s framework?
Think about these 3 questions…
1. What kind of character are you? If you were a character in a film, what would you be like?
2. What do you want? If every character wants something, then what’s your ambition, dream or calling that you’re pursuing with this precious, limited life?
3. What conflict are you overcoming in this pursuit? Where is your battle? What is your struggle against?
I believe you were created on purpose, for a purpose. In pursuing that purpose, you’re going to encounter a lot of conflict. Surprisingly, I believe this struggle is going to give your life incredible meaning and you may be surprised to find yourself giving thanks for the struggle. Some of our greatest opportunities are hidden in the midst of our fiercest difficulties.
Go live a great story today!