This Happened... and Then This Happened: The Dangers of Anecdotal Writing
By Michelle Barker
One of the issues I come across often in my work as a fiction editor is anecdotal writing. I encounter it in scenes, in chapters—and sometimes as the plotline of an entire novel. It’s one of those things where, when you read it, you can tell there’s something wrong, but you can’t put your finger on what it is.
An anecdote is a self-contained story, something you might tell a friend. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end: I went to the grocery store. This man had a meltdown over the price of coffee and started throwing things. I ran out before I got hit.
If you’re writing a non-fiction piece on anger management, the above anecdote, expanded with details, might be a good idea. An anecdote in non-fiction can bring a concept to life by showing its practical application.
If, however, you are writing fiction, anecdotes are a death knell. Basically what you’re doing is giving the reader slices of your character’s life—this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.
There are two main reasons why this is a bad idea.
Anecdotal Writing Supplies an Early Resolution
Because an anecdote is self-contained, it has resolution built into it. When you tell your friend that story, you supply an end—and usually things end well. You left the grocery store before anything bad happened to you. Phew!
If you end the chapter by telling us your character made her narrow escape and went home, what have you done? You’ve given the reader a place to put the book down. There’s no lead-in to anything else. You have closed the story door and taken away the crucial impetus that powers a novel forward: the desire a reader must have all the way through to find out what happens next.
There’s a reason we authors are in the business of making bad things happen to our characters. We don’t want things to end well. What we want are problems. Instead of escaping, what if your protagonist was hit with a jar of Nescafé and got a concussion?
That’s better, but making something bad happen isn’t enough. The concussion must lead directly to another problem. For example, if the chapter is all about the trip to the grocery store and the subsequent concussion that happens just before a critical job interview, then you’re ending with tension. There is a slight denouement (the angry man is arrested), but there is no resolution. You leave the story door open. The reader is eager to find out what happens next.
Leaving the story door open means you create forward momentum. Imagine your character mid-step. That is how you want to end a chapter. The reader doesn’t know where her other foot will come down and is compelled to turn the page.
Every chapter must end with that story door slightly ajar—something left unresolved. A lack of resolution creates both tension and forward momentum. You want your reader to be constantly grasping for resolution, but you don’t want to give it to them until the end.
The moment you supply resolution, you stop the plot from moving forward. There is only one appropriate time to do this: at the end of the book.
Anecdotal Writing Lacks Causal Connection
When you write anecdotally, you’re creating an and then story rather than a because of story. You are giving us slices of life that stand side by side without any connection between them. But a plot requires causal connection. ‘A’ happens. Then, because of ‘A,’ ‘B’ happens. Because of ‘B,’ ‘C’ happens.
Think of a domino chain. In order for it to work, the dominoes have to be close to each other so that each one falls BECAUSE the one before it fell. If you’re writing anecdotally, you are spacing the dominoes too far apart. When one falls, it falls—nothing happens as a result, and that wonderful ripple effect stalls. Again, this is all about forward momentum. A chapter that stands alone contains no propulsion.
Let’s return to the meltdown in the coffee aisle.
In the anecdotal version, ‘A’ happens—the meltdown. The woman escapes the aisle in time and goes home (B). The next chapter begins when she’s at work and something new happens that is totally unconnected to the grocery store event (C).
In the causally connected version, the meltdown happens (A). Because of it, the woman is hit with a jar of Nescafé (B) and gets a concussion—perhaps without realizing it. Because she is unaware of the concussion, she continues to the important interview for the job she’s wanted from the beginning of the story (C). Because she is concussed, the interview goes poorly (D). Because the interview goes poorly…
Notice the constant escalation? Things keep getting worse for our poor protagonist. But these are not solitary events. Every single plot point in a novel must be causally connected. You want every domino in the pattern to fall.
How to Know if Your Writing Is Anecdotal
- If you can pick up a chapter or scene and move it elsewhere without any consequences to your plotline, that’s a red flag.
- Ask your critique partners or beta readers to note any moment they feel they can set the book down without needing to know what happens next.
- List your plot points from beginning to end. Can you connect them with causal words such as because, but, or therefore? Or do you find yourself using the dreaded and then?
If Your Story Contains Anecdotal Writing, There Are a Few Ways to Fix It
First, this kind of writing is often a clue that your protagonist is aimless. Ask yourself: does he or she have a goal? Make sure your protagonist wants something from the very beginning of the novel. It should be specific (not, I want respect, but I want that senior executive job) and meaningful (to prove to my sister that I’m reliable, so she can trust me again). Nearly every plot point should involve the protagonist trying (but failing) to get what they want. And the goal should be quantifiable. At the end of the novel, the reader should know if they achieved it or not.
Second, take a closer look at your scene and chapter endings and ask yourself:
- Is something different at the end? It should be. Does your character finish the scene with a different emotion than when they started? Has something new happened? Has your character learned something? If any of your answers are no, revise with an eye to previous scenes. Think in terms of cause and effect.
- Have you made the situation worse for your character instead of better? While good pacing calls for some breathing room where the protagonist catches a break, anecdotal writing often involves resolving the protagonist’s problems too soon. In your dealing with the latter, consider replacing that resolution with another problem—ideally one your protagonist has created for him or herself.
Anecdotes have their place. They are a perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine. They work well in non-fiction to illustrate a key concept. Just don’t try to build a novel out of them.
This article was originally published by WritersHelpingWriters.net.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published two YA novels (fantasy and historical fiction) and a historical picture book. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.