What is Anecdote? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Anecdote Definition


Anecdotes (ANN-ek-DOETSS) are short stories that recount amusing, interesting, or informative events to make a point or express an idea. Their length can range from a single sentence to a couple paragraphs.

The word anecdote stems from the Greek anekdota, meaning “unpublished items.” Its modern meaning developed after the discovery of Procopius of Caesarea’s Anecdota, which details moments in the private lives of Greek Byzantine courtiers.


How Anecdotes Are Set Up


There are a few key considerations when constructing an anecdote.

Anecdotes often begin with an introductory or transitional element that indicates the narrative is taking a detour from its main story. Next, writers relay the basic information of the tale— who’s involved; what happens; when and where it happens, if relevant—and why this story is important to the broader narrative. They attempt to stick to pertinent details, as anything inconsequential can distract from the message. After sharing the anecdote, writers must present a conclusion or pose a question that prompts readers to draw their own.

There are some specific ways writers can incorporate anecdotes into a narrative.

  • Anecdotal evidence: This is information gathered informally through personal accounts. Unlike scientific evidence, which can be investigated and proven or disproven using specific methods, anecdotal evidence is a story. Therefore, it can skewed by bias or the limitations of memory or observation.
  • Anecdotal digressions: These occur when a narrative temporarily departs from the main story to recount a secondary story. Anecdotal digressions can be tangential, with little relevance to the primary narrative, but they can also be used to make a point.


The Functions of Anecdotes


Anecdotes serve a number of purposes. Amusing anecdotes can kindle friendship between strangers or lighten the atmosphere. Interesting anecdotes catch a character’s attention. They can also heighten tension and warn about potential obstacles or misfortune.

Anecdotes sometimes present challenges or provide direction; for example, a private detective may not fully trust a neighbor’s account of events, but that information can still inform the detective’s understanding of the case. Biographical anecdotes can be humanizing, encouraging empathy and connection between characters—or do the opposite and unveil a deplorable personality trait. Anecdotes can also be tools for manipulation or deception, with fictional and fabricated anecdotes serving similar purposes as factual ones.

You probably encounter more anecdotes than you realize. They’re a feature of conversation that figures into everyday life. You’ve likely heard family or friends share them, or perhaps you’ve encountered them in school because teachers often use anecdotes to express a point and facilitate understanding.

Anecdotes are used in various forms of narrative media for all these reasons and more.


Examples of Anecdotes in Literature


1. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain’s picaresque novel is notable for its regionalism and use of vernacular, but it also uses anecdotes to emphasize themes. One such anecdote occurs after protagonist Huck Finn encounters the slave Jim, who details how he escaped to Jackson Island:

Well, you see, it ’uz dis way. Ole missus—dat’s Miss Watson—she pecks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn’ sell me down to Orleans. […] Well, one night I creeps to de do’ pooty late, en de do’ warn’t quite shet, en I hear old missus tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn’ want to, but she could git eight hund’d dollars for me, en it ’uz sich a big stack o’ money she couldn’ resis’. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn’ do it, but I never waited to hear de res’. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you.

Although Jim’s tale is brief, it depicts the unequal relations between slaves and white society, and it demonstrates the harsh trials slaves endured. In this way, the anecdote supports Twain’s critical commentary on slavery as well as the text’s overarching theme of freedom.

2. Andrew Sean Greer, Less

Less follows protagonist Arthur Less as he crosses the globe, hoping to forget his increasing age, failed relationships, and other shortcomings. Chapter 1 develops Less through various introspective passages, flashbacks, and anecdotes:

Once, in his twenties, a poet he had been talking with extinguished her cigarette in a potted plant and said, “You’re like a person without skin.” A poet had said this. One who made her living flaying herself a live in public had said that he, tall and young and hopeful Arthur Less, was without skin. But it was true.

This short recollection reveals an aspect of Less’s personality to the reader. It shows that he is sensitive and easily offended. Less’s indignant reaction confirms the poet’s observation; it also suggests that Less dislikes this personality trait and resents attention being called to his vulnerability.


Further Resources on Anecdotes


Check out Secret History, also known as Anecdota, the book that informed our modern understanding of what makes an anecdote.

This article from Word Counter explains the difference between an anecdote and a story, as well as how to pen a standout anecdote of your own.

Best-selling author Jerry Jenkins shares six anecdote-writing tips to enhance nonfiction.


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