Using Anecdotes to Enhance Writing
An anecdote is a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person. Skillful writers use anecdotes across many contexts to quickly grab reader interest or make a resonating point. Here are some examples of impactful anecdotes in various writing mediums:
1- Anecdote Examples in Books
In memoirs and novels, authors interweave anecdotes from their own lives or their subjects to bring tales to life. For instance, in his book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, physicist Richard Feynman recalls funny anecdotes like trying to pick locks for fun during the Manhattan Project. It humanizes the legendary scientist. Here are some examples: –
- In ‘The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls’, the author recounts a time when, as a young child, she burned herself badly while cooking hot dogs alone at age three.
- Amy Poehler opens ‘Yes Please’ with discussing wetting herself in a fancy store while trying to make her friend laugh.
- In ‘Into the Wild’, Jon Krakauer describes Christopher McCandless dancing wildly and playing his guitar outside as police evicted him.
- Anne Frank in her ‘diary’ tells of accidentally spilling a pot of lentil soup all over the annex floor during wartime rationing.
- Trevor Noah in ‘Born a Crime’ describes memorizing and reciting a church speech in Xhosa before realizing he did not actually know Xhosa.
- In ‘Wild’, Cheryl Strayed depicts getting so lost on a Pacific Crest Trail hike, she ends up bawling behind a tree uncontrollably.
- Obama in ‘Dreams from My Father‘ talks about a car ride conversation on race with his white college girlfriend that exposed their divides.
- In ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day‘, David Sedaris humorously recounts trying to buy a pair of shoes using broken French to the extreme confusion of the shopkeeper.
- In ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, Rebecca Skloot vividly portrays Lacks’ cousin breaking down and learning Lacks’ cells taken without permission became hugely important.
2- Anecdote Examples in Speeches
Orators often open with an anecdote before building into heavier points. Martin Luther King Jr. started his “I Have a Dream” speech by saying “Five score years ago…” anecdotally referencing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address rather than just starting cold with policy issues. It connected better. Following are the examples of anecdotes in speeches: –
- During his inaugural address, JFK pointed out his friend who won the Medal of Honor for manning a lifeboat for 4 days after PT-109 sank.
- Sojourner Truth began her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech by recounting an incident where she carried hundreds of pounds of bags as easily as men.
- Churchill opened an Iron Curtain Speech by humorously noting getting a degree from the University of Miami surprisingly did not entail a sun & palm tree education.
- MLK described a moving letter from a young white girl troubled by integration unfolding in Birmingham during his iconic speech there.
- At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama told of the White House being built by slaves and herself waking up each day in a house built by slaves to underline progress.
- During his farewell address, Eisenhower recalled one of the saddest days of his presidency being when Soviet leader Khrushchev cancelled a summit.
- Malala Yousafzai began her UN speech by reminiscing about two girls walking home loving school in Pakistan before getting shot for pursuing education.
- At the March on Washington, John Lewis described in vivid detail the brutality he faced during Civil Rights marches in Selma seeking voting rights.
- In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, William Jennings Bryan encapsulated struggling Western farmers’ woes by discussing a letter from a farmer who poignantly wrote that they simply live by “harvesting one crop and praying for the next.”
- Elizabeth Warren illustrated economic inequality by starting a commencement speech with the anecdote of a janitor she walked by discussing student debt with another janitor.
3- Anecdote Examples in Movies
Screenwriters realize film allows visual anecdotal digressions harder in books. In Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, when Miles tries web shooting early on, they show in humorous detail how his first few attempts go hilariously wrong. We watch him accidentally stick a man’s arm to a car in traffic. Here are examples: –
- In The Avengers, they quickly establish Tony Stark’s ego by showing him hijacking the PA during a lavish event to prematurely announce his girlfriend CEO.
- The Social Network opens with a riveting breakup conversation that ends with Zuckerberg’s girlfriend harshly telling him he will “go through life thinking girls won’t like you because you’re a tech geek, and I want you to know, it’ll be because you’re an asshole”.
- In Inglorious Basterds, the Nazi Jew Hunter Strasser’s slimy character is introduced via the anecdote of him smilingly forcing a Frenchman to explain his own anti-Nazi graffiti at gunpoint.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 famously shows Hermione painfully wiping her existence from her parents’ memories before going on the run.
- The Dark Knight opens by recounting the Joker orchestrating a bank heist where he tricks his own goons into shooting each other to make his escape.
- Inside Out features a great ongoing gag involving a jingle getting stuck inside Riley’s dad’s head for humorous non-sequiturs.
- In The Big Short, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain suddenly appears to explain subprime lending risk concepts via making seafood analogies.
4- Anecdote Examples in Essays
Editorials and arguments essays integrate anecdotes to illustrate issues through real examples. An essay on healthcare could tell the story of a woman unable to afford surgery for her son and connect this anecdote to national policy failures. It makes things less abstract.
- In an essay on the unfairness of marijuana laws, an author could tell the true story of a teenager in Michigan facing years in jail for selling weed to consenting adults.
- To argue for better mental health support, an editorial may describe a homeless man talking to himself being mocked and yelled at by passersby.
- Discussing issues in nursing homes, an article may relate an elderly woman whose kids never visit crying to a nurse after spilling her untouched breakfast tray.
- Illustrating problems with standardized tests, a column could include a story of a stellar student denied graduation solely for struggling to pass one math exam.
- Pushing for more arts funding, an essay may tell of a little girl’s parents unable to afford music lessons for her even though she sings beautifully.
- Urging criminal justice reform, a piece may profile an African American getting a life sentence for stealing lawn tools under outdated three-strikes laws.
- Criticizing fatphobia in healthcare, an article may recount multiple doctors dismissing a plus-sized woman’s symptoms only to discover she actually had advanced cancer.
- Advocating better conditions in chicken farming, a writer could describe the true cramped spaces and suffering many chickens endure.
- Calling for revised DUI rules, an op-ed may tell the story of a grieving father who tra gically lost his son to a drunk driver.
- Decrying the prevalence of food deserts, an editorial may depict a low-income family unable to access fresh produce relying on gas station snack foods.
5- Anecdote Examples in Writing
Fiction authors sprinkle mundane yet funny anecdotes to deepen characterization and settings. J.K. Rowling depicts Harry Potter’s boring summer breaks by having him re count things like Vernon Dursley yelling at the postman for accidentally delivering mail on a Sunday once. Here are some examples: –
- In a short story, a fictional author could describe their main character getting dumped via text message moments before a major job interview.
- Stephen King opens one novel with a detailed depiction of a man dealing with a rapidly worsening hangover as he wakes up late for an important meeting.
- A creative personal essay may humorously recount someone attempting to assemble Ikea furniture with their partner the night before having guests over.
- In a novel, a key character’s nervousness may be illustrated via an early scene showing them accidentally knocking their coffee mug off a table mid-job interview.
- A memoir could open powerfully with the author vividly detailing the sounds, smells and tension in the waiting room on the day of her difficult cancer diagnosis appointment.
- Fiction writers will establish a setting through anecdotes like depicting the bustling sounds of tourists and performers at Venice Beach on a hot July morning.
- Fan fiction stories often endeavor to capture characters’ voices via amusing anecdotes like that character ranting to baristas about inaccuracies in the film adaptation of their life.
- YA stories may feature youthful drama anecdotes like a pretty, popular girl’s extreme reaction when an underclassman accidentally spills blue Gatorade on her new designer outfit.
- An author can create relatability with anecdotes like someone getting flustered and tongue-tied when greeting their celebrity crush or long-time idol in an unlikely, real world run-in.
- Fiction will build suspense through ominous anecdotes – i.e. a woman feels increasingly unsettled when she notices the same stranger appearing in the periphery everywhere she goes over a short period.