I’ve written my goals for the year: to eat healthy and exercise, to pay down my home, and to dig deeper into friendships. But while those are great ambitions, if I left them as just ambitions, or resolutions, chances are I wouldn’t get them done. Most people don’t stick with their new-years resolutions. But it’s not because they lack the resolve. It’s because their goals aren’t embedded in the context of a narrative.
I’ve discovered something better than resolutions. If you’ve read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, you know I’ve reorganized my life into stories rather than goals. I don’t have any problem with goals. I like goals and still set them. But without an overarching plot, goals don’t make sense and are hard to achieve. A story gives a goal a narrative context that forces you to engage and follow through. People who are in great shape and have their finances in order probably don’t set goals to be in good shape or get their finances in order. They probably set goals of running a marathon or paying off their house. In other words, they think in narrative rather than goals. The goals get met in the journey of the story.
A story involves a person that wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. If you plan a story this year, instead of just simple goals, your life will be more exciting, more meaningful and more memorable. And you are much more likely to stick to your goals. For instance, rather than saying I want to finish getting into shape this year, I’ve written down that I want to climb Mt. Hood with a couple friends. I have a vision of standing on top of the mountain in May, taking pictures and all that. Now my goal has a narrative context. That’s just a simple story, and I’ve planned some stories that are far more difficult but I only use that as an example. If my goal were to lose twenty pounds, I doubt I’d stick with it. But when you have friends flying up from Texas to summit the mountain with you, you’d better believe you are going to be hitting the stairs. I have to, because it I don’t, my story will be a tragedy. Again, stories give goals context.
So here are a few tips on planning a story for 2010:
1.Want something. In a story, the character wants something. Rudy wants to play football at Notre Dame, Harry wants Sally, Frodo wants to destroy the ring and so on. It’s true in every story, or else a story doesn’t make sense. If we don’t want something in our lives, our stories feel boring, long, meaningless and tired. We feel this way because we are sitting in the theater of our mind watching a story that isn’t getting started. Or worse, we are praying and asking God to give us a story while the entire time God is handing us a pen, telling us to write it ourselves. That’s why he gave us a will. So spend some time thinking about what you want with the year. Do you want to pay down the house, get into shape, deepen a relationship? Make your ambition clear and focussed. Choose two or three dominant desires and write them down.
2. Envision a climactic scene. Screenwriters often begin their story with the end in mind. They know their entire movie is heading toward that scene where Frodo throws the ring into the fire. And they write the movie to get him there. My climactic scene will be (God willing) standing on top of Mt. Hood. So I automatically know the hundreds of scenes that are going to lead up to that climax. I know there will have to be scenes hiking in the gorge, riding my bike, eating well, spending time at high altitude, accumulating gear and so forth. If you’re goals are relational (I highly recommend half your goals be relational, because relational stories are the most fulfilling) you might envision you and your wife renewing your vows, or you and your son refurbishing a car together. Once you have that climactic scene in mind, you’ll know the scenes it takes to get there. Also, write this stuff down. Even if you just throw it away, write down what that climactic scene looks like, smells like and feels like. It will get in your brain and like a good protagonist in a great movie, you’ll wake every day knowing what you are supposed to do with your time.
3. Create an Inciting Incident. Characters don’t want to change. That’s why so many new-years resolutions fail. We write down that we want to lose twenty pounds and end up gaining ten. It happens every year. What we are overlooking is a principle that every good screenwriter knows: Characters don’t change without being forced to change. An inciting incident is the event in a movie that causes upheaval in the protagonist life. The protagonist, then, naturally seeks to return to stability. And in order to do that, he HAS to solve his new problem. In Taken, Liam Neeson’s daughter is kidnapped and he MUST find her. In The Grapes of Wrath, the dust bowl forces the Joad family west. Characters must be pressured to change, or they won’t. And a narrative context can help. For instance, with my wrapping up my fitness goals (I’ve now lost well over 100 pounds, but have definitely taken the year off to just have fun, so it’s time to get back on it) I decided to climb Mt. Hood. But that isn’t enough. An inciting incident has to force me to climb Mt. Hood, so I contacted my friend Brandon Bargo in Austin and for the last couple months we’ve been talking about what it will take. We will also, hopefully, be climbing St. Helens and Adams that same month, so I’m going to have to be in really great shape. If I don’t, there’s a social consequence. I will let my buddy down, and I’ll also look like an idiot in front of all of you guys. So bringing a friend into the mix, and going public with my ambition serves as an inciting incident. Other inciting incidents might be signing up with friends for a marathon, joining a kick-boxing class, inviting friends to dinner every Sunday, writing an I’m Sorry letter to an old friend, buying an engagement ring, writing a check to a ministry, whatever…just something that forces you to move.
That should get you started, at least. Want something, imagine a climactic scene and create an inciting incident. And do it this week. Don’t wait. I created mine in November so I could get an early start.
I don’t know very many writers who love the actual act of writing. We will do anything to avoid work. But because we have to pay our bills, at some point every day a good writer sits down to do his/her work. And it’s no different when you’re living a good story. I doubt I am going to want to run stairs every day, but the truth is I have to. And I’m not going to want to eat right, either. But I have to. I’m not trying to make the whole thing sound grim. Living a good story is a lot of fun, but it can also be difficult and boring. But when it’s done, when you’ve renewed your vows or climbed a mountain, you’ll look back on one of the most rich and fulfilling years of your life, filled with scenes of difficulty and conflict, of beauty and sacrifice. The year will feel twice as long, because anything that isn’t a story is quickly forgotten by the brain, and your entire year will have been a story.
There’s a lot more to telling a good story with your life. I explore these ideas in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. The book is available at your local bookstore, or your favorite online vendor. Good luck living a great story in 2010!