Effective anecdotes do more than entertain readers. They reveal truth and evoke an emotional response in readers that draws them in and keeps them reading to the end.
Anecdotes, or short, personal stories taken from the writer’s life or the lives of those she knows, are staples in the lives of magazine writers. A compelling anecdote adds texture and color to a magazine article. It can move readers from an intellectual understanding of a topic to a personal response.
The key is understanding how to use them well. Here are some of the ways top-notch magazine writers find and use anecdotes in their writing.
The Anecdotal Lead
The anecdotal lead is used frequently in magazine articles, particularly features. Good anecdotal leads are simple, providing an illustration that is immediately understandable and relevant. An effective anecdotal lead provides a snapshot of the problem, conflict, or topic and elicits an emotional response from the reader.
Why start a story with dry statistics when you have an emotionally evocative anecdote that speaks to the heart of readers?
Another effective storytelling technique writers sometime use is to split an anecdote between the lead and end. In other words, start your article with a story that introduces the topic and close your article by telling readers how the story turned out.
How to Mine Anecdotes From Interviews
Interviews are an effective tool for gathering anecdotes, and face-to-face rather than phone or electronic interviews are generally more effective when it comes to mining anecdotal material. But effective anecdotes rarely fall from the sky. It takes work and skill to draw compelling anecdotes from your subject.
One way to draw stories from your subjects is to ask open-ended questions: “What did you see when….” or “Could you give me an example of….” Observations made while interviewing your subject could also lead to interesting anecdotes. For example, “What is the story behind that dollar you have framed on your wall?” or “Tell me about that baseball on your bookshelf.”
When to Paraphrase an Anecdote
Sometimes a journalist’s storytelling skills convey more emotion and clarity than a lengthy anecdote shared by the interviewee. In cases where the story is complex or when the person interviewed wanders off on tangents, the writer might choose to paraphrase the anecdote and include one or two well-placed quotes.
For example, it may be more powerful for the journalist to summarize the story: “As smoke seeped into the cabin, the young mother handed her four-month old son to the stranger beside her and pulling her two-year old daughter close, assumed the crash position, wondering if she–or her children–would live to see another day” rather than repeating the story as told by the subject word for word.
In short, anecdotes are powerful tools in the hands of the skilled writer. They strike at the heart of the issue and the reader, revealing truth in fresh and unexpected ways.