From Anecdote to Story

by Elizabeth McCracken

Our families, I think, are the first novels we know. That is: a complicated collection of people and anecdotes that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Every story about an uncle in his youth is precious, because it’s what made him that particular uncle: a sad teenage love story about a cheerful old codger means something different than the exact same story, only about a man who grows up to be bitter and disappointed. It’s that kind of pressure between event and emotion that fiction needs, and it’s our early interest in that pressure that made a lot of us writers. Still, sometimes the family stories get plonked into short stories and novels and never become fiction: divorced from their people, they become only detail.

This is an assignment that I sometimes give to writers who are just trying their hands at fiction, when they say they don’t exactly understand what makes a story a story, and not a sketch.

The Exercise:
Choose a family story, an anecdote that you have no first hand experience of. You can choose, for example, the story of how your parents met, the death of your great-grandfather, the disappointing love affair of your uncle’s youth. Some people have many stories handed down like heirlooms: you only need one. It can be a significant story or a trivial one.

Choose two of the actors in this story and write as many pieces of information you know about them in list form. Feel free to make up the details. You’re just piling up details which may or may not come into play in the story. If you’re very close to the people in this story, you may want to start fictionalizing them instantly. Don’t worry about the proseƑyou can do it in list form or in paragraphs, whatever helps you get the most on the page quickest.

Look at your anecdote. If there’s a clear and sensible setting, again, pile up the details. If there isn’t a setting, choose one. You may make the details up.

Put your characters in the setting on the day of the anecdote. Write a list that alternates a named action with an emotional response, one causing the other, and then write another action.

For example:

Ruth and Edna rushed ahead of Louis, eager to open the door to the museum by themselves.

  • WHICH MADE HIM FEEL: He was irritated by their slowness.
  • WHICH MADE HIM DO: He struggled to open the other side of the door by himself.
  • WHICH MADE RUTH FEEL: She was irrated by his bossiness
  • WHICH MADE HER DO: She grabbed Edna and they rushed into the museum past Louis, nearly knocking him over.
  • WHICH MADE HIM FEEL: He decided that if that’s what they wanted, he wasn’t going to look after them even though he was the oldest and he was supposed to.
  • WHICH MADE HIM DO: He stuck his hands in his pockets and went whistling away in the other direction.
  • WHICH MADE HIM FEEL: Like a successful vaudevillian.

You don’t need to alternate characters; you can have a character feel something, act on it, and then feel something again; or you can describe how what one character does makes another feel. The goal is to see the effect action has on emotion, and vice-versa.

You should be able to see the first glimmers of a story: you have characters you know a lot about, in a well-described physical world, and at least the start of a plot-line.

Now: write the story based on your family anecdote. You should either start with the punchline of your family story, or end on it. You don’t have to follow your list of actions and emotions step by step, or at all, really. Just keep in mind what you’ve learned from it and from your lists of details.