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Posts Tagged ‘Plot’

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 The word comes from Greek, via Latin and is based on their words meaning ‘unpublished’.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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Keeping dem bones healthy

“Take calcium,” my doctor said. “And exercise. You’ve got to keep your bones healthy. Without good strong bones your body won’t hold up for long.”

I would rather the doctor had told me to eat chocolate and relax in my armchair with a good book but I wasn’t about to argue. Some things are just too important to ignore.

When it comes to story the plot resembles the bones – the skeleton of the whole thing. The stronger the skeleton, the stronger the plot. But how do I put together a strong plot?

Here, courtesy of Carol Berg, an awesome writer of fantasy, is a quick and easy plot definition:

(This person) wants ((goal) because (motive) but (obstacle).

I know it looks like a mathematical equation but that’s her background and the analysis works. Let’s try it.

– The old detective tries to solve the murder because his boss will fire him if he fails but the murderer is holding the detective’s daughter hostage.

– Jack wants the giant’s treasure because he is poor but the giant guards it closely.

– The pretty girl wants to marry the young man because he handsome and of good family but he already has a gorgeous, rich, talented girlfriend.

You could apply this plot analysis in almost any genre. In a very short story then the plot works simply and directly towards a conclusion. With longer stories there can be additional complicating factors, more characters and sub-plots.

You can dress up the bare bones in any way you want. You can leave it in a nightshirt or cover it with layers of silk, satin, gold and jewels. The reader does not have to see, figure out, or be able to state the plot. He just has to enjoy the story and perhaps catch the message. It might be better if he cannot figure it out because that means your story is so good you have concealed it, just as your bones are concealed by your flesh.

You still need that strong plot skeleton, though, to keep your thoughts together and focused on the unity and true wholeness of the story.

You have a thousand stories – you just have to find them.

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Sharpen the plot

My dad was always careful with his tools. When he finished using them he would clean them, oil them if necessary and store them carefully until next time.  If I used a tool I’d just chuck it back on the bench somewhere and he would come along later and clean it ready for use. When I asked him why he looked after tools so carefully he replied, “Why would I bother trying to chop wood with a blunt axe?”

Good point. When it comes to deciding on a plot it’s easy enough to state a plot using the formula outlined in “Dem Bones”:

(Character) wants (goal) because (motive) but (obstacle)

But with a little extra thought you can sharpen it into something even better.  By better I mean more interesting, more gripping, more intense, more emotional. Choose the adjective you would like to see enhanced in your story.

One way to state Jack and the Beanstalk’s plot might be “Jack wants the giant’s treasure because he is very poor but ….

In a lot of plots the character wants to achieve his goal for the simple reason that he isn’t like that now. Jack wants riches because he is poor, an addict wants to be clean just because she is addicted and knows it’s a rotten way to live. The goal is implicit in the way the character is at the start of the story. Good enough. It’s much better though if you up the ante. If Jack’s mother is ill and needs expensive medicine. If the addict will lose her child if she can’t get clean.

It’s better still if Jack’s mother will die without the medicine or the addict has this one last chance to keep her child.

And even better if Jack’s mother will die tonight without the medicine or the addict’s child has been pleading in tears to stay with her mother.

Each time you up the stakes you sharpen the axe; you cut right to the emotion of the story. You pull your audience in, you make your story memorable. Check your stories, anecdotes and examples to see if you can sharpen them, sharpen them again, then sharpen them some more.

It’s another tool in your story tellers toolbox.

You have a thousand stories. You just need to find them.

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