Writing Post: How To Tell An Anecdote

This seems so intuitive that I wasn’t going to make a post about it at all, but a) Ruthi told me to and b) my own dear sweet mother cannot tell an anecdote to save her life. She is incapable of determining what makes a good story, of knowing when the story should end, and of knowing the difference between “important information that needs to be related to me immediately”, “an anecdote”, and “completely irrelevant prattle that no one in their right mind wants to hear.”

So here goes: things to keep in mind when telling an anecdote!

The subject should be something out of the ordinary

It doesn’t have to be mind-blowingly unusual, but it does have to be something out of the normal order of events. For example, “I thought I heard a car alarm but it was just someone’s phone ringing” is not an anecdote, and nor is, “I had pasta for lunch and had a talk with Brenda and she told me she’s going on holiday to Greece”; an ancedote is, “I packed the pasta into my lunchbox a bit too tightly this morning and Brenda was talking to me about her Greek holiday, so I wasn’t paying attention and I put the box down too hard on the counter and the lid just burst off and pasta flew out and that – that, Jonathan – is why there is penne in my hair. It’s not a fashion statement, it’s a culinary landmine.”

Spotting someone somewhere unexpected can be an anecdote if the reason for them being there is strange, rather than mundane: if an accident is to be the subject of the anecdote then it must contain some unusual cause or outcome, or at the very least some slapstick.

The pathos should not be excessive

If you’re telling an anecdote in which someone is injured physically or emotionally it’s very important that they’re either not badly injured or completely healed (and that this is evident in the story, otherwise what you’re telling is a sob story or a misery memoir instead, and those tend to make less entertaining pub-based listening.

Stick to the point

Provide just enough context that people know why to find it funny or surprising: often, if you can’t assume enough shared knowledge (“Lisa almost always wears black”; “The 123 is renowned for never being on time”; “fish can’t whistle”) to keep the explanatory prologue to a bare minimum, you probably aren’t telling your story to the right people. Unlike written fiction, anecdotes are there to be told to a specific audience, so you can always save it until the right one crops up.

Don’t go off on tangents, don’t include asides that aren’t relevant to the punchline/main point of the story.

Make yourself look bad

If you’re the protagonist of this anecdote – and this is usually the case – you really need to steer clear of turning it into a five year old’s “and then I punched him and he flew into the sun” fantasy where you are the hero. Clearly it’s going to be just as bad if you cast yourself as the pathetic downtrodden victim of a terrible catastrophe, but do, within reason, self-deprecate. Make yourself the butt of your own joke. No one likes a braggart, after all.

Don’t worry about the facts

If you’re wondering how to do all this while still telling the truth about your escapade, don’t. Truth has a certain place in ancedotes, in that your story sounds better if you start it on the foundation of reality and return to the events that occurred regularly enough, but let’s get one thing straight here: you’re not giving a lab report. This isn’t the faithful reproduction of the events as they went down, because real life very rarely hands you incidents which are perfectly paced and edited.

Don’t be afraid to chuck out things you said or did which don’t quite fit, or to include a better-written version of something someone said than what actually popped out of their mouth. Everyone does it: just massage the truth a little and you’ll have a much better story to tell people.

The golden ratio of truth-to-bullshit in my estimation is around 4:1 (or 75% truth, 25% bullshit out of the whole story), because full fabrication is harder to sell with conviction and more difficult to remember to repeat.

(I’m still not sure what the point was in this, but for more utterly helpful advice on storytelling, why not pick up the Kindle edition of How Not To Write for a whopping 77p?)


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