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“What is an anecdote in writing?” is a question that may be on your mind as a writer, especially if you’re just starting.
If you want to know more about anecdotes, you’ve come to the right place.
I wrote this guide to discuss anecdotes. I’ll also give real-life examples, walk you through how to write excellent anecdotes, and explain their purpose.
An anecdote is a quick story with a singular theme or lesson that often comes with someone else’s history, personal experience, or knowledge. Like many stories, people relay anecdotes through speech.
In nonfiction writing, anecdotes help writers make a point or share a relevant story.
Some writers use anecdotes to provide secondary or supplemental information supporting the primary flow of ideas.
Others use them to deviate from the main narrative, creating a temporary pause to entertain readers.
Writers also use anecdotes to separate sections of the writing, creating a more fluid transition than direct interruptions like a chapter, prologue, or epilogue.
As a writer, you must be careful when using anecdotes to discuss critical details since they somewhat diverge from the main flow of ideas.
You can use anecdotes in any part of your writing.
- Beginning (to introduce a topic)
- Middle (to support the flow of ideas)
- Ending (to make a final point)
A personal anecdote is a story based on real life, with or without a bit of exaggeration thrown into the equation.
Most people who tell an anecdote think they are telling a story without realizing that these two are quite different.
Many people use anecdote and short story interchangeably even though they are different.
According to Merriam-Webster, an anecdote is a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.”
Thus, you can consider an anecdote as something relating to facts with only one theme.
Meanwhile, short stories create a space for movement, meaning it starts one way and ends another way. They have a beginning, middle, and end.
People use anecdotes to make a point. However, they lack the structure that makes stories memorable and meaningful.
All good stories have the following structure.
An anecdote is somewhat similar to a short story in that it has a beginning, middle, and end. However, an anecdote is significantly shorter and has fewer details.
A good anecdote introduces a character and theme, follows it with a conflict, and wraps it up with a conclusion.
True anecdotes are simple and quick, meaning they have a faster pace with fewer details.
Since anecdotes are supposed to be short, they often revolve around a singular central character (another feature distinguishing it from a story).
When writing an anecdote, always include the following elements:
- One main character (If there are secondary characters, only share limited information about them.)
- One conflict or theme
- Over-simplified plot
Most anecdotes use irony, humor, tragedy, historical figures, and real-life events, depending on the emotional response a writer wants to elicit.
Pay close attention to the language to set the right mood and tone when writing an anecdote.
Feel free to use different tones in the same anecdote, similar to what you can find in many inspirational anecdotes. However, ensure to avoid overcomplicating your narrative.
Follow these steps to create compelling and enjoyable anecdotes.
- Choose a relevant and interesting event that happened to you or someone else (It doesn’t have to be strictly true stories.).
- Establish your main goal and mood. Do you want it to be inspiring, funny, thought-provoking, scary, or interesting?
- Structure your ideas carefully.
- Tell your narrative using descriptive words.
- Draw your conclusion.
An anecdote isn’t a complete work of writing on its own. Instead, it’s a brief story within a larger story.
Before you start writing your anecdotes, you must establish your goal.
Ask yourself what you want to accomplish.
Here are tips for writing brief yet thought-provoking anecdotes.
- Use a conversational writing style when creating an anecdote.
- Ensure the narrative is short. You should be able to quickly relate it to your audience in writing or conversation.
- Stick to one theme, character, conflict, and resolution.
- Use language reflecting your anecdote’s mood and tone.
- Ensure it sounds natural in written and spoken language.
Whether you base anecdotes on real life or fiction, they play a critical role in making the audience understand a character’s motives and background better.
An anecdote can be a “breather,” providing a temporary pause to the main narrative. It gives the audience a short break, allowing writers to transition naturally from one topic to the next.
Some writers use anecdotes to fill gaps and slow the storyline’s pacing.
Using specific language when telling an anecdote is crucial to set the appropriate mood.
For instance, an inspirational anecdote often uses sentimental words to stir the reader’s emotions.
Meanwhile, humorous and ironic anecdotes often involve profanity and slang to make them comical or amusing.
There’s no formal way to categorize anecdotes, but here are some of the most common types you’ve likely encountered.
These narratives can give the reader valuable insights into relationships, struggles, failures, money, success, love, losses, and other issues that make life interesting and unpredictable.
These anecdotes often use sentimental and nostalgic language, although talented writers insert witty expressions that add more impact to their narratives.
These quick and highly focused stories involve characters with poor judgment or flawed beliefs resulting in negative consequences and regrets, thus teaching the reader a lesson.
You’ll often see cautionary tales in Greek mythology and folklore.
Humorous anecdotes use witty language, slang, and even profanity to set the right mood.
People often tell these anecdotes in social situations or include them in literary mediums to lighten the mood of a dramatic plot.
These narratives are about the past.
Characters express these anecdotes when they remember something because of a current event.
Reminiscent anecdotes often start with phrases like, “That reminds me of the time.…”
Since these anecdotes dwell on the past, they conjure a sense of nostalgia, regret, or melancholy.
These anecdotes show the characters’ personalities or describe past events necessarily related to the main storyline.
You can often find characterizing anecdotes in fiction and literature.
Screenwriters who create biopics also use these anecdotes to dramatize the life and story of celebrities, historical characters, politicians, innovators, and other real-life figures.
When you include interesting and relevant anecdotes in your writing, you can take advantage of the power of narrative.
Anecdotes are effective in writing because they provide insight into how an issue or event can affect someone’s story. Consider anecdotes as elements that give a human face to facts and abstract ideas.
Journalist James Parker wrote an article in the New York Times explaining the challenges of comedy and humorous writing.
“For a certain kind of writer, seriousness is the default. It’s what you do when you haven’t got anything else going on.”
Humorous anecdotes are hard to write because humor is highly subjective. There’s a considerable risk of the anecdote sounding cliché and forced.
Since anecdotes cover various stories and tales, they can cover any topic. Here are some examples of narratives in everyday life.
- “When I was around 10 years old, I had a black cat that growled and hissed at everyone except me. She would also cuddle right next to me in bed and slowly wink at me as if telling me she loved me.”
- “I love that small, sleepy town. I remember when I was a boy, I would spend every summer there frolicking on the white sand beach with turquoise-colored water. It’s paradise!”
- “Once, I had a close friend who stopped talking to me after she was cast in a TV commercial. Her career didn’t take off because puberty hit her hard. I didn’t know the term schadenfreude back then, but I did know the feeling.”
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire contains several seemingly mundane yet compelling anecdotes.
The following anecdote is from Albus Dumbledore, a character known for his wise and gentle nature. He tells a brief account of one particular trip to the bathroom.
“… I took a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and found myself in a beautifully proportioned room I had never seen before, containing a really rather magnificent collection of chamber pots.”
Dumbledore added that the room had disappeared when he went back to investigate.
The anecdote offers insight into his inherent character—curious, wise, and almost childlike.
In his book “Clark Gable: Tormented Star,” British author David Bret described Marilyn Monroe as “flatulent, dirty, and ate in bed.”
He also added that the iconic Hollywood sex symbol “rarely bathed… ate a lot in bed and shoved whatever was left on her plate under the sheets before sleeping.”
These brief accounts appeal to many people because they want to know if someone else faced the same struggles and failures they experienced.
Here are some examples of inspirational or persuasive anecdotes:
- Before beginning a speech, the keynote speaker tells the audience that he came from a hostile home environment but managed to create a more peaceful and loving home for his family.
- Former gang members share stories about how they managed to break away from the culture of violence and turn their lives around.
- Single parents tell their stories about juggling different roles, raising their children, managing their finances, earning their living, and finding happiness.
Anecdotes in writing can make situations more interesting for both the characters and the readers.
Use them correctly, and you can give a human face to facts and abstract ideas and add credibility and depth to the main flow of the story.
Apart from anecdotes, it would also help to learn what an ellipsis is in writing because it serves many purposes.