An anecdote is significant to the topic at hand or of discussion. It’s quite short, sometimes only a sentence or two. These stories are spoken aloud rather than written down, meaning that telling them is inspired by the moment. One person in a conversation might think of and decide to relay an anecdote after seeing something familiar in what’s happening around them. The word “anecdote” comes from the Greek ἀνέκδοτα meaning “things unpublished.”
Definition and Explanation of Anecdote
Anecdotes are very short stories that someone thinks is interesting and applicable to a specific situation or conversation. This story might teach a mini-lesson, remind other people around something that happened before. This might be to warn, lecture, amuse, or remind. It’s important to note that anecdotes are not written down. They’re only told orally, shared among friends, family members, and close colleagues.
Types of Anecdotes
There are several different types of anecdotes that one might encounter in everyday conversations. They include:
- Humorous: meant to add humor to the topic of conversation or an event. This might occur through the introduction of a similar, funny story of a past event, etc.
- Reminiscent: are stories about the past that are expressed when a character is reminded of them by current events. They might use a phrase like “That reminds me of…”
- Philosophical: this kind of anecdote is used to inspire other characters and the reader to think more deeply about a topic.
- Cautionary: are used to warn others about a course of action or possible event.
- Inspirational: used in order to give hope to others or inspire positive emotions.
Examples of Anecdotes in Literature
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
There are several interesting examples of anecdotes in the Harry Potter series. One of these comes from Albus Dumbledore, a character known for telling seemingly unrelated stories that really hold a deep significance to the rest of the story. In The Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore goes off-topic with the following lines.
[…] I took a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and found myself in a beautifully proportioned room I had never seen before, containing a really rather magnificent collection of chamber pots. […]
The passage goes on to add that the room, when Dumbledore went back to investigate, had disappeared. This anecdote provides an interesting insight into Dumbledore’s everyday wanderings and his child-like wonder. It also provides the reader with good contrast in regard to the other visiting headmasters at Hogwarts.
Swan’s Way by Marcel Proust
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take.
The passage goes on, with the speaker describing the madeleine cookie. This section of the story introduces the important theme of involuntary memory, which is also related to anecdotal storytelling.
‘Death in the Arctic’ is a rare example of an anecdote within a poem. In this piece, the speaker is freezing to death in the arctic. There, he thinks back on his life and remembers his time with families and friends.
“The Remarkable Rocket” by Oscar Wilde
This story comes from Wilde’s well-loved collection, The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The story focuses on talking fireworks, set to be released at the wedding of a Russian princess and wealthy prince. One of the fireworks, Rocket, spends time talking about his heritage and sensitivity in an effort to get the other fireworks to see him in a particular light. Unfortunately, his bragging and anecdotal stories don’t get him very far, and he ends up wet, in a ditch, and then in a fire where he explodes without any observers.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Crucible is Miller’s best-known work and one that includes good examples of anecdotes in the stories that Abigail makes up in regard to why she was dancing in the woods with other girls.
Why Do Writers Use Anecdotes?
Anecdotes are highly effective when used by skilled writers in novels, short stories, and even longer poems. One character in any of these forms might recall an experience they lived through or one they heard about and share it in a moment of similarity. This might amuse others in the story or inspire them to a different action. Just like in everyday conversation, the anecdotes in stories can be humorous, reminiscent, philosophical, cautionary, and inspirational.
Sometimes, an anecdote is used to reveal more about the world in which a story is taking place or enhance the characterization of the person telling it. They should also allow the reader to think more deeply about the topic at hand and consider the roles that all the characters have to play in the story.
Related Literary Devices
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Frame Story: narrative within a narrative. It occurs when one character decides to tell another story to the other characters around him/her.
- Epic Poem: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Exposition: the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Listen: What Anecdote Means and Why You Should Share Anecdotes in Conversation
- Watch: The Crucible Play
- Read: “The Remarkable Rocket” by Oscar Wilde