Back to the Archive


November, 2001 Column
What's It All About?

Do you know the difference between a story and an anecdote? Unless you plan on selling little "slice of life" vignettes to magazines like Reader's Digest and Woman's Day for the rest of your writing career, you'd better.

Merriam-Webster defines an anecdote as "a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident."

Sounds similar to a story, right? Stories are narratives, and they certainly should be interesting. They can be amusing or biographical. Sometimes they're even about a single incident. In fact, you could wrap the word anecdote around just about any piece of fiction and tug at it until it fit. But as a fiction writer, you might be wise to consider the etymology of anecdote, which comes from the Greek anekdota, meaning "unpublished items."

New writers often recall incidents and think: Gee, that would make a great story. Not necessarily. The difference between anecdote and story is that while anecdotes describe an event in an interesting or humorous way, fiction must achieve something more.

Stories are not about events--stories are about the human needs and emotions that precipitate events. Sure, things happen in stories, but without including human desires and passions, they're simply anecdotes. You're probably writing the fictional equivalent of an anecdote if those who read and critique your story tell you, "It's okay, but it's missing something."

The key to crafting fiction that does more than describe an incident or set of circumstances is to ask these crucial questions:

  • What does my character desire most, and what is he willing to do to get it?

  • What am I trying to say with this story?

Answering the first question--what does my character desire--provides the fuel for your story. Motivation is the catalyst that sets events in motion. Your character wants something, and your story will be about how he overcomes a series of trials in order to achieve (or fail to achieve--stories don't have to have positive outcomes, only satisfying ones) his goals. Without a motivated character, your story is just an anecdote.

Meaning--the question of what you're trying to say with your story--is the difference between a memorable story and a forgettable one. Meaning provides texture, depth and richness. Stories that detail events, without fulfilling the need for deeper meaning, seem hollow. Let's say you wrote a story about a Jewish man's struggles during World War II. You might say your story is about a man who survived the holocaust, and that may well be true, but if your story has meaning, it would also be about the power of perseverance, or the triumph of good over evil.

A simple way to remember these keys to a rich, fulfilling story is to think of them as M&M--Motivation and Meaning. Without them, you risk writing anecdotes--narratives about events and circumstances instead of people and their desires. While anecdotes may be fun occasionally, they don't make for resonant, memorable fiction. Do you want to keep crafting "unpublished items?"

I didn't think so.

2001, Karen Hertzberg

DO YOU HAVE SUGGESTIONS for an upcoming Fiction Writer's Toolbox column, or comments on this month's column? Send them to Carol.