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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.