Once when I was having a short story of mine work-shopped my lecturer stated that I had written an anecdote, not a story. This irked me at the time; I felt he was being pedantic and finding fault to complete his role as educator. This was perhaps a bit arrogant because after giving it some space, I looked back on this particular story and saw that he was absolutely correct. I had written an anecdote.
The difference between an anecdote and a short story is one of framing. An anecdote, as my lecturer explained, is a situation, an occurrence that lacks the correct framing of a story. This framing is a familiar one we’re all taught from primary school: beginning, middle, and end.
My anecdote had characterisation, dialogue, imagery. It had things happening. What it didn’t have was a point.
After realising the truth behind my lecturer’s advice, I gave the problem a lot of thought. I attempted to create a story that had correct framing. Unfortunately, being not yet twenty at the time and having spent a lot of my childhood in front of the television left me reaching for clichés to structure my stories. I used episodic formats and overused ideas. In other words, my stories weren’t very good. I became frustrated.
After months of frustration I pinpointed the cause of my irritation; life is messy.
I wanted to capture reality in my writing. I wanted to take the chaos of my experiences and display them in my text as they had felt. Even if what I was writing was fantasy, I wanted in to feel real. And life is messy. It lacks format, and at times it even lacks a point. I was frustrated because I felt my anecdotes more accurately represented reality than a neatly framed story. Granted, they were basically a description of events, but then so is life.
I didn’t write for a while after that realisation. I decided I’d wait until I thought of a story that had the correct framing, but at the same time allowed me to express my version of reality. And for a long time I didn’t think I could do it. I thought that any attempt to reshape ideas and events into a neat package was sacrificing my representation of a messy reality.
It took me a while to realise that I was looking at it from the wrong side. I had a story line and was trying to squeeze reality into that shape. But that’s not a writer’s job. What I actually had was reality, and what I should have been doing was looking for the story within it. Because even though life is messy, it’s a writer’s job to take that mess and search for a meaning. To find the point.
A well written story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has motifs, and loaded dialogue. It has subtext. It has a point. It’s a writer’s job to scroll through the mess of reality and find these elements in life. By writing an anecdote I was simply being lazy. I was failing to cut away the excess to find the structure buried inside.
By writing a story you’re finding the point amongst the mess. You’re pulling out the meaning from the chaos of events and structuring it so that meaning is more evident for the reader. An anecdote may capture a messy reality, but then so too does a diary entry. Or, god forbid, a blog. And while these types of writing have their purpose, they aren’t a story.
A story isn’t simply about photocopying reality; it’s about finding the meaning in the mess.
Thanks to my lecturer for pointing this out to me by criticising my work. It was the best thing he could have done.