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Anecdotes vs. stories

One of the skills I teach my travel writing students in MatadorU is how to distinguish an anecdote and a story.

We all have experiences that feel important… that are important in our own lives. And writers are particularly adept at catching and recording fragments– scenes observed, dialogue overheard, vivid details we feel compelled to share. Experiences and fragments may or may not, though, be able to be built out into a complete story, one that will have resonance and meaning for a reader. It’s often difficult for newer writers to figure out whether what they’ve got is an anecdote or the material for a complete story, especially when they feel personally attached to the anecdote.

What can be helpful, then, is to look at someone else’s writing to practice this skill of discernment. Here’s a piece of writing we can use as an exercise:

**

The man in the Duckie wheelchair reminds me of Victor, who is dead.

How long has he been dead, anyway?

I can’t remember.

It’s not just that he’s in the wheelchair, though there’s that, too. He looks like Victor, has Victor’s often bitter attitude.

“Do you want a lemonade?” a woman asks with the exaggerated concern of a Jewish mother.

“No, I don’t want a lemonade,” he says, as if repeating her entire phrase in the same urgent, cloying tone will wound her even more than “No.”

When they sit at the table, they don’t speak. Victor’s look-alike fiddles with a smart phone (I think of his Facebook status update: “With the parents at the High Line- what a thrilling Saturday.”) and his father sits slightly pushed back from the table, sipping the overpriced lemonade that Mother was so insistent on buying.

Could the lemonade make up for anything?

There have been three wheelchairs so far today–one with a retarded girl, but we don’t say that anymore, do we? Her father pushes the chair, which looks like an overgrown baby stroller, and Mom holds the hands of the two “normal” children. Dad’s arm has a tattoo of names inscribed on a ribbon that curls like a tornado’s funnel on his bicep. Are they the kids’ names? Is her name there, too?

If Victor, my Victor, knew I thought the man in the wheelchair looks like him, he’d say, almost violently, “No, he doesn’t,” with a finality that signaled there was no room for discussion.

Victor was that way.

**

Is this a story? 

I’d like to say yes, because I wrote it, but the answer is “No.” It might have the beginnings of a story, but what it lacks is the confirmation of conflict or narrative tension and resolution of that conflict or tension. This is not a story; it’s simply a collection of observations.

For nonfiction writers, the abandonment of an anecdote may be painful and especially difficult. A fiction writer, after all, has the freedom to take an observation or idea and exploit it as he/she wishes. For a nonfiction writer, it may be impossible to get the details that would build out the anecdote to the point it could be considered a narrative. In the case of the piece of writing above, this is likely its terminal point- there’s not much more to do with it.

Do you struggle with discerning anecdotes and stories? Let’s talk more in the comments. 

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16 responses »

  1. I think it’s difficult for new writers (myself included) to really distingish between stories and ancedotes. How could the above ancedote be developed into a story? Is there even a real story behind the ancedote?

    Reply
    • Mike-

      Great question. In the example given here, I don’t think it could be built into a real story; there just isn’t enough action or information to carry it forward. It’s also not clear if there’s a theme. Could it potentially be turned into a personal essay? Maybe. But as the writer, even I am not sure what I’m exploring here– disability and my relationship to it?; family conflicts and relationships?; something else entirely?

      I think the best way to distinguish between a story and an anecdote is to step back and ask yourself two questions: (1) What’s the driving force here? and (2) Does this collection of words go anywhere and/or do anything? Even when you have some finely observed details or something that’s moving or funny, you may end up letting it go because it simply can’t be built out into a stand-alone piece.

      Reply
      • This is helpful. I would hesitate to tell my students that their anecdote should be abandoned. I’m wondering if an internal personal stuggle could be generated within the anecdote, thereby making it more universally experienced. What do you think?

      • Julie Schwietert Collazo

        Yes, absolutely. If anecdotes have a larger trajectory, then they can absolutely be used/written about to generate a more universal type of story.

  2. Nicely illustrated point. Thanks, Julie, this was helpful.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for this! When I set up a travel blog in 2008, I learned the difference between anecdotes and stories the hard way: no comments on my posts, no feedback, no critiques. Nothing. As I traveled, I couldn’t figure out the problem. I had an army of friends and family that I could count on to follow the blog. And no one ever said anything (except for motherly notes of encouragement every so often). It was a surprisingly painful experience; I’d always been told that I was a talented writer, but the blogosphere clearly rejected everything I had to say.

    A few years later, I finally understood the problem. I was writing anecdotes. They were vivid, detailed, and interesting…but they were still anecdotes. I wasn’t creating a forum for readers to emotionally connect with my writing or providing opportunities for readers to play around with larger, more universal themes. I was simply describing cool things I saw and assuming that they were stories.

    I’m starting a new travel blog at the end of September and, needless to say, I’ve learned my lesson. Your post reinforced a point that took me two years to learn. 🙂 Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Lanre-

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences. I think the biggest misconception about blogs is that posts are/can be/should be purely anecdotal, hastily written observations. I think they *can* be occasionally, but as you’ve learned, most writers, regardless of their publication platform, need to take the time and care to craft an actual story if they want to develop and engage an audience. Please be sure to send us the link to your blog when you start up the new one!

      Reply
  4. This is so helpful. I think my problem is stringing a series of anecdotes together in the hopes that they will create a story…which can work sometimes, but certainly not every time, even if the anecdotes touch on similar themes.

    Reply
  5. I think this anecdote could be an introduction to an essay or story. It does leave me wondering who Victor is and what your relationship with him way. You could also weave it into a fictional piece.

    Reply
  6. Really interesting topic for discussion. This is something I consistently struggle with in my own writing. I think part of the problem is that I’m never sure where, chronologically or thematically, to start and end a story, and it’s hard to build on anecdotes when there’s no sense of what the building’s meant to be. Perhaps that’s about needing a stronger sense of purpose – like you say in your response to Mike’s comment above, it’s hard to know if your anecdote could be turned into a personal essay because you’re not sure what you’re exploring yet.

    Definitely agree with Heather though – your anecdote feels like it has mileage in it as an introduction to a longer piece. As a reader, I’m left curious and willing to be engaged by whatever might come next.

    It might be interesting to see an anecdote like this juxtaposed with a more fleshed out story – any plans for an “Anecdotes vs. Stories Part 2”? 🙂

    Reply
    • Miranda (and Heather)-

      I think this anecdote resonates with both of you on some level because you both have an eye for these kinds of details and recognize that they’re important in their own way. I *do* think I could turn this into something, but it hasn’t quite taken on the life of its own that it needs to. Is this about disability? About death and its attendant losses? Family relationships? All/none of the above? Since I’m not sure yet, it’s relegated to the anecdotes/ideas pile! 🙂

      I’ve got to think a bit about an example that I can use to help illustrate an anecdote that might have been turned into a story. Let me chew on that.

      Reply
  7. I had never even thought about there being a difference between a story and an anecdote. And I completely identify with Lanre’s comment above – I’ve been (trying to) write mostly anecdotes. In fact, I am still not exactly sure how to identify the difference between the two. Would be great to have a follow-up post on this! Thanks!

    Reply

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