Add One Anecdote.

Anecdotes are like raisins in oatmeal cookies. Sure, you can eat the cookies without them, but you’ll miss out on the added flavor, contrasting texture and enhanced nutrition. And effective anecdotes aren’t like red sprinkles on top of sugar cookies, adding bits of glitz but no flavor or substance.

For the nonfiction writer, anecdotes are tools that bring generalities to life and that help readers see and hear rather than simply be told.

Think of them as ministories, as this anecdote from William Goldman’s New York magazine article about wrestler-turned-film-star Andre the Giant illustrates:

He was very strong. I was talking to an actor who was shooting a movie in Mexico. What you had to know about Andre was that if he asked you to dinner, he paid, but when you asked him, he also paid. This actor, after several free meals, invited Andre to dinner and, late in the meal, snuck into the kitchen to give his credit card to the maitre d’. As he was about to do this, he felt himself being lifted up in the air. The actor, it so happens, was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who remembers, “When he had me up in the air, he turned me so I was facing him, and he said, ‘I pay.’ Then he carried me back to the table, where he set me down in my chair like a little boy.” Oh, yes, Andre was very strong. When Arnold Schwarzenegger tells me someone is very strong, I’ll go along with it.

In all the right places

Effective anecdotes rarely fall onto your manuscript like manna from heaven. Instead, you must search for them. Start with your interviews. Listen carefully for hints of an anecdote lurking below the surface. Elicit more than dates, places, formalized statements, dollars-and-cents statistics and opinions. The way to draw out the ministories you need is through open-ended questions such as “Tell me what happened when …” or “What did you do that day?” or “Describe what you saw when …”

The personal nature of face-to-face interviews makes them more productive than phone interviews in mining anecdotal material. And when you interview, be sensitive and attuned to cultural distinctions and nuances, whether the subjects live down the road or thousands of miles away.

When Georgia Scott was writing her book, Headwraps: A Global Journey (Public Affairs/Perseus), her work took her to Timbuktu, Singapore, the Philippines and beyond. Interviewing through a translator made it hard to get personal stories, she says, but “I always asked to see family pictures.” Also, be creative in your questions. In Rome, she asked a Roman Catholic nun to describe the dresser in her closet.

Your own experiences and observations may give birth to anecdotes. During her research trips, Scott wrote a column for Essence.com, the online version of Essence magazine. She recounted her deportation from India to Nepal after her travel agent botched her visa arrangements. The anecdote recounted the night she spent in custody with a guard sleeping in the same room and the bathroom door bolted so she couldn’t escape.

Don’t ignore documents as sources for anecdotes. My book Pioneering Michigan (A&M Publishing) drew heavily on diaries, family histories and letters to bring life to women, men and children who settled in frontier-era Michigan. Instead of merely stating that Jefferson Gage Thurber acted bravely in the midst of widespread panic during the 1832 cholera epidemic in Detroit, I used a letter to his New England relatives:

I was a daily attendant in the hospitals, both of the Army and the citizens. From the fact of not having it, I concluded it was not contagious. The panic at that time exceeded anything I ever imagined. The timidity of our border settlers from sudden incursions of the Indians forms but a faint comparison. I have no doubt from what little experience and observation I have had that fear has killed as many as the cholera.

Those same kinds of sources provided me with details of how horses broke through the frozen crust of a snow-covered route, and how a pregnant wolf kept in a family’s shanty provided its owners with a $5 bounty on the pups.

Where it should go

Finding a potentially worthwhile anecdote isn’t enough. Now you must use the raw material wisely.

First, where does an anecdote go? Most are placed in the heart of an article, like the Schwarzenegger one, but the correct answer is: anywhere it fits. The lead may be an ideal place, especially for profiles or trend stories. Steve Wilson launched his Folio: magazine profile of a boating magazine owner with this anecdote:

One evening in 1973, Bob Bitchin, future editor and publisher of Latitudes & Attitudes, pulled his chopper up to a stoplight on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. He made eye contact with a man in a fur coat behind the wheel of a Ferrari. When the light turned green, they raced. The driver (who won) turned out to be Evel Knievel, and their late night of partying and entanglement with the law later made it into a Rolling Stone article.

Or wrap up with an anecdote, leaving a ministory in the readers’ minds. Douglas Preston does so in the evocative ending to his National Geographic piece on Cambodia. Preston told how he touched an ancestor stone, then:

… ran my finger into the cool groove of a carved lotus. Here, broken soldiers from an Angkor temple had been put in the service of an even more ancient religion. One of our soldiers, a skinny, barefoot teenager with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, stopped at the shrine, placed his hands together and bowed deeply in an act of veneration. A gecko called twice, and then the forest fell silent in the stifling noonday heat. Life went on in this strange, timeless land.

You can even split an anecdote between your lead and your ending. Profiling an athlete, for example, you may open with an anecdote about a key basketball game and, in a few sentences, draw readers up to the buzzer when your subject shoots the make-it-or-break-it basket. Then wind up with the ball arching toward the basket as fans hold their breaths, and tell your readers the result.

How to maximize impact

  • Write tightly. Remember, the anecdote isn’t the point of your article—it’s merely a device to make or emphasize a point. Not all details are important. An overly long, overly wordy anecdote detours readers. The length of an article also helps dictate the desirable length of an anecdote. In a 1,000-word article, a 350-word anecdote is apt to be out of proportion and won’t leave you enough space to cover everything else.
  • Think fiction. Even though you’re writing nonfiction, use literary devices that characterize fiction, including plot, dialogue, characterization, sharp words and description. Something should happen. If people talk, they should sound conversational rather than stilted, but don’t distort the meaning of what they actually said. If a person—or even an animal or machine—is the focus of the anecdote, readers should gain a personality insight. Choose vivid words conducive to the tone of the piece. And weave in description or color to help readers visualize what’s unfolding.

    The Evel Knievel anecdote conveys a sense of Bitchin’s love for action and adventure. There’s no dialogue but plenty of plot, characterization, power words and description—in fewer than 100 words.

    The selection process

    If you’ve done your interviewing, observation and research well, you’ll have more than enough anecdotal material for your project. The question becomes how best to pick and choose from your riches.

    For impact, an anecdote must be more than a window-dressing or a way to boast how clever or lucky you were to snag this treasured tale from your sources. No matter how entertaining, omit those that fail to bolster a relevant point. Also skip those that are repetitive or clash with the mood you’re striving to create. For example, the Schwarzenegger-in-the-restaurant incident illum inates the writer’s observation about Andre the Giant’s insistent generosity toward his friends. The writer may have heard other stories about Schwarzenegger and Andre that were less on point, and a second ministory about generosity would have been superfluous.

    Finally, don’t think of unused anecdotes as junk or regret the time you spent unearthing them. They may tell just the right minitale in a future project.

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