When I first started writing I got a few rejections saying my pieces were anecdotes and not stories. After I’d dried my tears, I began to wonder what the difference was?
What is it that makes a story a story, and an anecdote something you tell your friends but don’t get published?
An ANECDOTE is an incident from our lives that we tell our mates down at the pub or over a cup of tea. This tale may have many of the elements of a story – setting, characters and action – but usually that’s it.
For example –
When people notice the scar running from my forehead down along my left temple beside my eye, I tell them an anecdote about how, when I was fourteen, I was searching for organisms out on the rocks at Deadman’s Beach (true!) during my school biology camp on Stradbroke Island.
A huge wave came hurtling towards us and I braced myself by facing into the barnacle covered rocks, gripping on for dear life. The wave crashed over me and my classmates, and smashed my face into the rocks, dragging me as it fled back out to sea, grating my face against the barnacles. Adrenaline pumping, I scrambled to my feet and leapt over the rocks, racing to shore where my poor teacher was greeted with a bloody mess like Sissy Spacek at the end of Carrie.
I was almost helicoptered back to Brisbane, but the local island doctor was used to shark bites and stitched my face back together again – sixty stitches in all. I wasn’t a pretty sight. Once I got back home my friend took some photos and we entered me in a Dolly Magazine Covergirl Competition. We thought we were pretty funny. Needless to say, I didn’t win 🙂
As you can see, this anecdote has plenty of action and drama and even a happy ending. But it’s not a story. WHY?
Because it only tells what happened. An anecdote doesn’t reflect on the events and dig deeper to find meaning.
STORIES on the other hand are how humans make sense of the world and what happens to us. They delve deep into the emotional heart of what that incident meant to us and how we were changed as a result. A story creates MEANING from the meaningless.
For example –
What if I told you this accident happened only a couple of months after the death of my young father? What if I told you that when the wave hit something inside me hoped that it would tear me away and take me to where my father was. What if I wrote about how, as the doctor stitched my face back together again, he sang the Death March. What if I wrote about how my best friend tenderly helped me wash the blood out of my hair that night as I sat in a cold bath. What if I told you that I lay awake for hours in my bunk, trying to convince myself that my father’s death had been a bad dream I’d had while knocked out, that he would be waiting for me on the other side of the ferry?
Then we’d have a story. A story I haven’t written yet, but just might.
“Dig deeper,” I tell the memoirists I edit and teach. Don’t be afraid. Go deeper and find the true heart of your story. Turn that anecdote into something that touches people.
Have you got an anecdote or two you could dig deeper into to create meaning? Search hard enough and everything that happens has another layer of story reflecting human experience.
That’s what we writers do, we write to make sense of the world.
Want to learn more? Come along to my next retreat in the mountains with a special focus on memoir writing. Great for beginners too, and anyone needing to reboot their writing mojo!
Let me know how you go!
Lots of love
4 thoughts on “ANECDOTE vs. STORY What’s the Difference?”
This is such a valuable post Ed. Made me realise I’m currently writing more of an anecdote than a story – the piece needs more.
The story of your facial laceration definitely has many layers. Hope to read it one day 🙂
Thanks Fi darling. That extra layer will do the trick 🙂 Before you read it I have to write it – it’s been in my head a LONG time! xx
Love this Edwina! Very helpful insight into the difference between anecdote and story. I never knew that you lost your dad so young (for you both) and I’m so sorry for you…it’s heartbreaking to think of you as a young girl who has lost her dad and then ends up having your face smashed like that – I hope you DO write that story someday xo
So glad you liked it Gem! Yes 40 years ago now. He was a wonderful man- lucky we had him as long as we did. Lots of love xx