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Stories and Anecdotes

When people ask the difference between an anecdote and a story, the quick answer is that an anecdote is shorter than a story.

That is often, but not always, true. We’ve all heard speakers who can spin one anecdote out over twenty minutes and we’ve heard stories that are complete in 5 – 7 minutes.

My dictionary tells me that an anecdote is a short, usually amusing, account of an incident, especially one that is personal or biographical. The word comes from Greek, via Latin and is based on their words meaning ‘unpublished’.

A story, the dictionary says, is the narration of a chain of events. Again the word comes from Greek via Latin. It relates to the word ‘history’ which is ‘a record or account of past events’.

So an anecdote is the tale of an incident. Just one incident, but often a defining one in the speaker’s or writer’s life. A story is several events that hang naturally together. It might be true, but very likely it is fiction, or at least partly fiction. The events might be strung together purely for entertainment, or they might  be linked in a way that teaches a lesson.

Motivational speakers who address their audience for an hour or more string anecdotes together linked by their reflections and lessons learned from the meaning of each incident. In the end the speech is almost like the story of their life to date – a series of events that hang naturally together.

Stories are more complex than anecdotes. You can only wring just so much meaning out of one anecdote. Stories, on the other hand, with their series of events can multiply levels of meaning depending on how the teller chooses to include or exclude events and how she chooses to manipulate the characters through the events.

Stories have a plot, which is just simply a plan. Anecdotes have no plan. They are just a record (perhaps embroidered) of one event. I could tell you about the big dog that attacked mine this morning. I could rattle on about it for half an hour. I could take lessons from it about dog training or leash laws. I could make it vivid, sharing my fear.

But in the end it is still just an anecdote. I can’t make it, by itself, into a story. I could include it in a story, as one scene. It would be vivid because it is something I actually experienced. It would be like one bead – attractive, but it would need a lot more beads to make a necklace.

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