In the movie The Princess Bride, a grandfather gives his sick grandson a present.  The grandson opens it to find, to his dismay, that it's a book.

"A book?"

"That's right," grandpa says.  "In my day, television was called books." 

People love stories.  Whether they get their stories from television, movies, or books, they can't get enough.  Wise essay writers use this knowledge and sprinkle anecdotes (which are mini stories) liberally throughout their essays.  Without stories, the facts become dry and brittle and hard to swallow (think textbook writing).

So what, precisely, is an anecdote, and how can you best use it?  Given the definition that an anecdote is a little story, my students often ask, "Like this?"  And they show me something along the lines of their life history.

. . ."I was born on the reservation and lived with my grandparents at their ranch until time to start school.". . .

. . .Or "In high school, I was a nerd.  I never was interested in sports or dating.  All I wanted to do was spend every day in the computer lab.". . .

Technically, these are narrative (story), but they are sooooooo general.  And I'm allergic to general.  The more generally you write, the more distance you put between your reader and the topic. 

It's like those scenes in movies where the camera moves back and back and back, away from whatever the scene is focusing on, and more and more of the environment appears within the range of the camera.  The movie Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did this to an absurdity, panning out from Arthur Dent's mouth, to his face, to him standing in his yard, to his house, to the surrounding town, to Great Britain, to the northern hemisphere, to the planet Earth, to the solar system, to the galaxy, and so on.

So when you write about a span of time -- "When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike along the irrigation ditches." -- it's general narrative.  "Used to" also clues us into the fact that it was over time, a habitual action, not a one-time thing.  "Would" used for the past is another one of those clues.  "My mother would make the best pancakes."

Specificity

 

 Think specific when you tell a story.  Think "one day, such and such happened."  Making the story one scene, with no change in time frame or location, puts the reader in the middle of it.  He can more easily visualize what's going on, and it seems more real and immediate to him.

One of my students wants to write about teen pregnancy and use her sister's experience being a pregnant teen to support her points.  The whole pregnancy cannot be an anecdote, but the day the sister told her parents she was pregnant could be.  Events that happened during the pregnancy could be anecdotes, as well, if they're treated individually.

Set the scene

Writing a story takes a bit of development.  You can't just say, "My parents blew up the day my sister told them she was pregnant."  That's the result of your scene, the bottom line.  So is "Once, I got put into jail even though I didn't do anything wrong."

First, give a little background and set the scene.  "One fall day, I got home from school early.  My drama club meeting had been cancelled.  My little sister, who was sixteen at the time, had stayed home sick, so I expected she'd be in bed watching TV."

Think of the sensory details.  To describe a scene, we often think only of what we see, but there is so much more involved in a scene.  Consider all of the five senses in describing your scene.  This doesn't mean use descriptions for all five senses in every scene.  That could create description overload.  Also, some of those descriptions may not fit the scene.  (If you didn't taste anything, it would be silly to mention taste.)  But at least think about them, and pick out the best ones.

"I got home and nuked a burrito for a snack.  The smell of melted cheese made my mouth water.  But I never got a bite of that burrito.  A sudden scream from upstairs startled me."

OR "When I closed the front door, the screaming in the hallway caused a bitter taste in my mouth.  My gut lurched."

One way to make the scene more real is to use quoted dialogue.  (See "Dialogue in Essays" for more information.)  Rather than paraphrasing what was said, which again distances the reader from the scene, use the characters' actual words.

Compare "My sister yelled at mom that she hated her," and "'I hate you!' my sister yelled."  Which seems more real?  So even if touch, taste, or smell isn't useful for a scene, at the least, you can use sight and sound, especially the sound of dialogue.

Action

So far, I've just talked about describing.  But like I said, you can overdo description.  Pure description doesn't move.  It just sits there.  Even though it makes things easier to visualize, it can get quite boring.  So you need to tie that description to action. 

The action, after all, is the purpose of the scene -- it's what happened.  Think of the events -- the happenings -- in detail, on a micro level, step by step.  One way to do it is to take the bottom line (my parents hit the ceiling . . .) and work backwards.  Before my parents hit the ceiling, what happened?  (My sister blurted out that she was pregnant.)  Before then?  (I was getting comfortable and getting ready to eat a snack.)  And before then?  (I came home from school.)  Back up just enough to give the reader a setting.  Then work forward. 

You'd use the past perfect tense -- had plus the verb -ed -- to explain anything that happened before the scene.  For example, I said "my drama club meeting had been cancelled" and "my little sister had stayed home sick."  Both of those mean those particular events happened previous to the scene we were entering.

 To be sure that you are using action laced with description, check the verbs.  Don't let them be linking verbs, especially ones like is, am, are, was, or were.  True action verbs are better, more interesting.

 Check out "She was angry."  Or "She screamed."  Which sentence is better?  What happened?  You can't tell in the first one -- she could have been silent angry, using a cold stare to express her anger, or she could have slammed the door; you just can't tell -- but you know what happened from the second example.  The first sentence tells the reader information the reader can figure out for himself if he only has the information from the second example.  The second one better involves the reader and moves the story along. 

 

To practice writing anecdotes, choose from the topics below and write a very short story about it.  Anywhere from three to five paragraphs (remember that dialogue changes means quick changes of paragraphs) make a good anecdote.

With such practice, you'll be able to keep your readers interested with the tales you tell in your essays.

ANECDOTAL TOPICS:

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An embarrassing moment

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 time you were very afraid

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One time when you were humiliated

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An event that made you proud

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A tense moment

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A funny event

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Being in a car accident

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A lesson learned

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A discovery made

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Your first kiss

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Your first date

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The first time you drove a car

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Your first day of high school

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When you were a hero

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An event that made you sad

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The day you figured out Santa wasn't real

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A family story

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An aha! moment

    This page last updated by Connie Gulick, Tuesday, May 18, 2010.