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Becoming a Better Writer

Take Your Writing from Anecdote to Story

The most common note I make when voting “no” on a submission is this – anecdote, not story. It would appear that many writers don’t know the difference. I know I didn’t – not when I entered my MFA program anyway. After three intense years of studying craft I finally got it … with a little help from Aristotle and my professors.

So what distinguishes story from anecdote? Although plot isn’t the only thing, it is the big one. What is plot? Here is the most helpful explanation that I’m aware of, which you may have heard as well:

No plot: The king died, and then the queen died.
Plot: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

When I think of plot in short fiction I picture a line of dominoes, each knocking the one before it down – cause and effect. The classic study of this phenomenon can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics. Although written about drama, the principles outlined there have been a tremendous help to countless fiction writers. Pick up a copy – along with Oedipus Rex, which you will need as well – and give both a read. Preferably Oedipus followed by the relevant section of Poetics followed by Oedipus again. Although you won’t find many plots as rigid as that found in the Sophocles appearing on our site (or in the recent BASS, for that matter), studying all of this should help you see how satisfying the plots that do appear there really are.

Here at Bartleby Snopes we don’t need a structure as formal as that found in Greek tragedy, nor do we need a virtually uncountable number of dominoes to fall at breakneck speed like they do in a book such as The Da Vinci Code. But something really should cause something else. A couple of dominoes. Three. Maybe four. You get the picture.

So that’s plot – the most important thing that distinguishes a story from an anecdote. But what else? Most pieces that get the dreaded anecdote, not story comment from me also lack a beginning, middle and end. This sounds like plot, and it is related; certainly there is a very distinct beginning, middle and end that arise out of plot in Oedipus. But we see some submissions that, even though they have a plot, wander around way too much. They lack a natural progression. Even seemingly plotless stories like Woolf’s Kew Gardens and Turgenev’s Bezhin Meadow feature a highly satisfying progression.

Finally, a few words about endings – you need one. If you want to take your narrative from anecdote to story, anyway. Many of the pieces we reject as anecdote just fizzle out. Or the writer attempts to end them by throwing something big in there, like a violent death, that fails because it did not arise out of the narrative we’ve been given. The ending should, as I just said, and I’ll repeat it because this is important, arise out of the narrative. As is often said, the perfect ending should be surprising, and yet feel inevitable. It won’t feel inevitable if it doesn’t follow naturally from that which has come before it. I don’t need the kind of button you’d see at the end of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I need something. And if I find a little insight into the human condition there, all the better.

So that is my down and dirty on anecdote versus story. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It has certainly helped me to give this topic some thought.

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is an Assistant Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine.

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4 Comments

  1. Your way of describing the difference between anecdote and story was crisp and easy to understand. (even your example). I’ve never heard of this before…, so, yes, I learned something and it did help. Thanks!

  2. This topic has been top-of-mind for me as I research my second novel and search for a crit partner to help in the process of bringing my first book to market. The material I’m most often compelled to collect is anecdotal in nature, seized as a the seed for a dialogue line, scene, storyline or theme. Your distinctions, and the dominoes imagery, will be helpful to me as I work to fully develop plot. Thanks!

    • Jennifer Brown

      April 19, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      Hi Cyndi! In my opinion, things don’t have to be anywhere near as tight in a novel as they do in a short story, but the dominoes do still need to fall. Best of luck as you write your second novel!

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