For all of my life I have loved stories. Whether a book, movie, or show on TV, tell a story and put enough mystery, explosions or fighting in it, and I was hooked. I didn’t know why I was hooked, but it didn’t matter. I loved every minute of a good story. It wasn’t until I was much older and read Donald Miller’s A million Miles In A Thousand Years that I truly understood what makes up a good story. It is a fairly simple formula that writers follow every day.
Every good story has a character that wants something. He goes after the thing that he wants, but he encounters conflict. The conflict almost beats him, but he doesn’t give up and he is able to overcome it. The character endures and reaches the climax of the story where the character achieves what they set out for. Whether it was to win the boxing match at the end of the movie, to finally fall in love with the one their heart desires, or whatever. You know when you have gotten to that scene at the end of the movie and it is time for the credits to roll.
But, what does this look like in real life? I loved when people handed me a story to enjoy. Could I spot one for myself?
It was the spring semester of 1997. I was a freshman at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and I needed a job. I responded to an ad to work for the college newspaper. The faculty advisor of the paper was a hard, but fair, professor who had a doctorate in journalism. It was a bit intimidated going into the job, but soon found my grove doing whatever was asked of me, and from time to time writing articles.
I was given an assignment one night to write a story over a speaker that was visiting the Baptist Student Union on campus. He was present for the events of April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City and would be sharing his experiences. Being young and dumb, I took a date and didn’t pay very good attention to the speaker. Actually, I don’t think I ever heard a word he said. I knew my date had a curfew and, in an effort not to get us both in trouble, I ducked out early and got her home on time.
When I went into work the next day, I was called into the professors office to discuss the story I would be writing.
“Did you get the story?” she asked.
“No, I went, and I listened. There just didn’t seem to be much of a story,” I replied.
I am not sure if I had seen a professor get frustrated that quickly before. There might as well have been steam coming out her ears. She stared at me like I had lost my mind.
“He was a rescue worker at the Oklahoma City Bombing!” she said as she raised her voice. “What do you mean there wasn’t a story?! Are you out of your mind?!!”
I did the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t say anything. The truth was, I was 18. I am not sure my mind was fully functional at that moment. I did have enough sense not to tell her that I had taken a date and ducked out early.
“This is what you are going to do,” she stated very matter of factly. “You are going to find the man who spoke the other night. You are going to set up a phone interview. You are going to get this story.”
I was dismissed and knew well enough to get out. I quickly did as I was told and set up an interview. The speaker very graciously agreed to talk with me and I spent about 15 minutes asking questions and writing as fast as I could.
From the conversation I learned that he was a youth minister in Oklahoma City. He volunteered to be a rescue worker right after the bombing took place. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was not prepared for what he witnessed at the bombing site. There were many workers there to help, but there was so much devastation and hurt. He told me of carrying out bodies and parts of bodies. The workers worked for hours and hours without much food or rest in the hopes of finding anyone else that might be alive and rescuing them. It was by far one of the most traumatic event of Oklahoma history and the most traumatic of this man’s life. The aftermath of what he saw and heard drove him to the point where he wanted to commit suicide. He recalled a part of the story to me where he had decided to end it all. He got in his car and started driving down the highway at well over 100 mph. He tried more than once to run the car off the road and into the pillars of a bridge. He said he felt the steering wheel pulling his hands back. He tried again at the next bridge he came to. Again, he felt a tug on the wheel in the opposite direction. He pulled his cell phone out and called a woman that he knew as praying for him. “Stop praying for me!” he told her over and over. Her answer in a word, no. He knew in that movement that he needed to find help. Soon after he took a sabbatical from the ministry and received counseling. He was happy to tell me at the end of our conversation that he was back at work in the ministry and taking life, with God’s help, one day at a time.
I interviewed this man almost 23 years ago. The paragraph above was written from memory. I went back and checked the article that had written in 1997 to make sure of my facts, but I didn’t miss any. That is what a good story does. It places images and details firmly in our minds so that we do not forget the important things that happen. We remember because of story.
Had I done what I should have that night at the Baptist Student Union, I would have listened to every word. I would have soaked them in, because he was there in person telling the story. I would have not taken a date. I would have approached him after and asked question after question to understand more. My professor was right. There was a story and the story was powerful.