A quick Google search for “what’s the difference between a story and an anecdote?” reveals one of the most common sources of storytelling confusion and touches on one of its most fundamental building blocks: change.
One of the hallmarks of a good story is growth. Whether you are working from the Hero’s Journey or The Moth Guide to Memorable Storytelling a captivating story relates a course of events which transformed you the storyteller or transformed your world.
In other words, if something happened and, that's it, it just happened, you don’t have a story, you have an anecdote.
If something happened and, bam, you were never the same, well then you have a story.
However, it’s not always easy to know if or how something changed you so developing your story requires you to explore what happened in detail and ask yourself who you were before and after it all went down.
In doing this, there will be times when you discover that an event impacted you more than you were even aware of. But at other times you will discover that you emerged pretty much the same. Like all creative efforts, the process is one of trial and error and sometimes you discover that something you thought would make a really good story, really doesn't.
For instance, I was recently developing a story based on the theme of "momentum."* Going through my story journal, I found a single line which read: that time I was driving dad’s car on Central Avenue and the brakes went out. "Perfect!," I thought. Here was an event related to momentum which, story-wise, seemed to have everything going for it:
It occurred during a significant time in my life - I had just graduated from college
It had a setting - Central Avenue in Yonkers, where I was driving my dad’s car
It had a clear goal and a clear obstacle - I had to get everyone to safety even though I couldn’t stop the car
And it had stakes - success or failure would determine the fates of everyone in the car
The only thing missing was change but I anticipated that I'd discover some once I did some digging. After all, I’d thought back on this moment for years and was still confounded by the fortunate outcome; I was sure that if I applied enough curiosity I would discover that underlying truth that would make it worth sharing.
So I opened my laptop, dove deep into my memory banks, and took notes; I took notes about my dad, about getting my license, and about my parents’ divorce. I took notes about driving to Poughkeepsie for my last semester of college, about the time my ex-boyfriend crashed his Ford Escort on Arthursburg Road, and even about the cider donuts we used to buy on the road when we were heading home for the holidays.
It was all potential fodder for a good story but rather than growth or meaning, all I could glean were the questions I’d been asking myself for decades and still couldn’t answer: Why did the brakes go out that day? Was it my guardian angel that saved our lives? Was it someone else’s guardian angel? Was it just luck? Was that question enough to base a story on?, I wondered.
Once I'd composed a first draft, I road tested it with family and friends. Rather than praise, however, I received suggestions: draw out the moment when I discovered I had no brakes, drop the part about the divorce, make my listeners more scared. A good friend even demonstrated how I could amp up the drama by retelling the chain of events with great emotion. As an experienced storyteller, her performance was compelling -- but the story she told wasn't my story.
So I kept working and tweaking and working and tweaking until I had to admit – there was no story there.
In the end, even though four lives had been in danger and even though I’d narrowly avoided a crash, in the bigger scheme of things, not much had happened. When it was over, I was shaken and relieved but still the same person I’d been when I’d gotten in the car. I’d gotten a glimpse of my own mortality and the mortality of my passengers, but there was no revelation, epiphany, or change; we just weren’t dead.
That time I was driving dad’s car on Central Avenue and the brakes went out?
Even though it happened.
Even though it was memorable.
It was not a story.
It was just an anecdote.
And while it took some time to figure that out, it was time well spent. For all I know, the memories I uncovered may find their way to an actual story I tell some time later down the road. No effort is ever wasted.
*Every month, The Moth announces a theme for its local storytelling slam. This month's theme in Seattle was "momentum."