ANECDOTE vs. STORY What’s the Difference?

young-woman-writing-letter-at-desk

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?

MEANING.

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.

10

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 🙂

poster-a-womans-face_08

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?

vintage-father-and-daughter

 

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!

vintage-woman-writing

Let me know how you go!

Lots of love

Edwina

5 WAYS TO BUILD NARRATIVE DRIVE IN MEMOIR

tower-of-books-1

John Gardner once said, “Structure is the primary concern of the writer.” The more I write and edit other people’s writing, the more I agree with him. It’s not the story itself but how the writer chooses to arrange story elements that keeps the reader turning pages.32533._SY475_

This is easier when writing fiction than when dealing with the real-life constraints of memoir, but here are a few ideas to help you keep your memoir readers up at night in a page turning frenzy.

Before we start there are a couple of issues you need to consider. First of all

  1. What are you writing?

If you’re intention is to record your entire life history then you’re writing an autobiography, not a memoir. What’s the difference? A memoir is a focused selection of life events around a particular theme or time in your life.

  1. Who is your audience?

Are you writing just for family and friends, or people who shared these experiences with you? If so, then you can really write whatever you like and they’ll still read it.

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.50484

However, if you believe your story has a wider appeal, that you have a story of interest to the general reading public then you’re going to have to work a whole lot harder at building narrative drive to hook them in and keep them reading right till the end. If you’re not a famous sports star or a glamorous movie queen, then selling your memoir to a publisher is going to be tricky. You need to make sure you have a compelling narrative that grabs them right from the start. But how?

Reading by Lamplight by James Whistler

Reading by Lamplight by James Whistler

5 WAYS TO BUILD NARRATIVE DRIVE IN MEMOIR

  1. Write down all your key plot points.

An easy way of thinking about this is to call them Heart Clutching Moments as Elizabeth Sims does in her Writers Digest Article

Think of the moments in your memoir that have most emotional impact – the parts where your hand goes to your heart. Key emotional turning points – remember to include some happy moments as well as those of drama or trauma. Write down a list of as many of these as you can think of.  Put big circles around the most important and a star next to the most emotional, most moving, heartbreaking moment. That is your climax.fullsizeoutput_5b2

  1. Find your central quest or question?

Delve deep into what your story is really about. Ask yourself, “What is this story about?” Then again, “What is this story really about?” Ask yourself those two questions seven times. Famous non-fiction writing teacher Robin Hemley developed this method for finding the heart of your story.heart with eye

Once you have your answer then formulate a question or quest. In memoir it might be something like this “Will Mary ever find the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965?” or “Will innocent Bob survive his time in jail?” Or “Will Sarah find a cure for her mysterious illness and be well again?”

You get the idea. What is your central question?

  1. Find your Hope and Fear around this question.

In order to keep the reader highly engaged in your story, every scene and chapter needs to move them between hoping that YES – your central quest/ion will have a happy ending (that’s your hope) and NO! – the very worst will happen (that’s your fear).

654-08231766

For example

HOPE: Mary will find her adopted daughter who will want to see her and they will lovingly reunite.

FEAR: Mary won’t ever be able to find her daughter no matter how hard she tries or how close she gets. OR Mary will find her daughter who won’t want to have anything to do with her.

HOPE: Bob will study and be freed from his wrongful imprisonment and go on to be a lawyer advocating for those still in jail.

FEAR: Bob will be brutalised in jail. All his appeals will fail, and he will die, sad and alone, in the electric chair.

Oh dear – poor Bob!

electric chair

 

What is your Hope and Fear?

  1. What is your HOOK?

s-l400

Your hook is what sets up your question and the connected hope and fear right at the start of your memoir. Look at your list of Heart Clutching Moments and find one which will be best to draw your reader into your story. It doesn’t have to be what chronologically happened first. The power of writing is that you get to play around with the order of events to create most suspense and impact. It doesn’t have to be the whole event, just a snippet of it. Then once you’ve set up your question and what is at stake you can go back and fill in the background.

For example

Mary gives birth to a precious baby girl and gets to hold her, but only for a few minutes. Then she is spirited away and a weeping Mary signs away her rights as mother.

Bob is eating his last meal on death row, the priest beside him giving comfort. He starts down the long hallway in chains.

  1. Arrange your key plot points

415DVmwzY2L._AC_SY400_

Look at that HCM list and arrange them after your hook. You can list them chronologically but make sure there is movement between your hope and fear in each one. Build to your most impactful moment as your climax. And make sure that you have some kind of satisfying conclusion – even if it’s sad.

For example

Mary gives birth etc

Mary at the graveside of her husband who she never told about her secret child – now she is free to look for her.

Mary tells her son about her search. Son says, “She won’t want to see you.”

Mary finds old papers and begins search.

Mary finds orphanage but records were lost.

Mary finds alternate clues – her daughter has been searching for her

Mary gets sick – she may die before she finds her daughter – search intensifies.

Mary finds an address – in the same state!

Mary’s son kicks up stink – why are you doing this? It’s too stressful! You’re sick!

Mary makes a tentative phone call – gets her daughter’s husband

Mary’s illness worsens.

Mary’s daughter arrives on her doorstep and they reunite tearfully and joyfully.

Mary’s son reacts badly.

Mary’s daughter is a doctor and heals Mary and all family is happy and harmonious!

images

Now real life isn’t usually so orderly, nor does it have neat closed off endings, but for the purpose of your memoir you’re going to have to find a satisfying point to stop where the main quest or question has been resolved.

These exercises can be done after you’ve already completed a draft or even better, before you start the big job of writing it. If you can write to a structure that is already moving between hope and fear, then your job is halfway done.

Of course all of this is applicable to fiction writing as well – just easier to do because you can invent events and keep that movement between hope and fear with a flick of your pen.

GOOD LUCK!

writing on retreat!

If you’d like to learn more about memoir writing or just make a start on telling some of your life stories, then my next retreat in Highfields west of Brisbane is now open for enrolments. Come and join a like-minded group of women and get writing! See here for all the details.

What is your memoir’s central question? What is the hope and fear? Need help working it out? Ask away!

Lots of love

Edwina xx