What Is an Anecdote?

An anecdote is a brief story or life event told to get a specific reaction. Public speakers often use anecdotes as ice-warmers to loosen up their audience and make them laugh, especially if the subject matter of the talk is going to be dry and academic. A teacher might use an anecdote to help her students relax on the first day and realize that she is just a human being, too, with a life outside of the classroom.

Not all anecdotes are humorous. They can also be used to elicit fear, sadness, or even anger. In the film The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer Hannibal Lecter presses Clarice Starling to tell him her memory of saving a lamb from the slaughterhouse when she was young. Although a touching story, this anecdote makes Clarice and the viewers realize how vulnerable she is.

How Do You Identify an Anecdote in Writing?

In public speaking, the main purpose of an anecdote is to make your audience feel a certain way. The content of the anecdote is less important than the emotional response. The purpose of an anecdote in literature, on the other hand, can be to shed light on a larger theme or to give the reader insight into a character’s personality. The anecdote may be something that happened to the character in the past, or it might be a fantasy that they decide to share.

For instance, in The Great Gatsby, Daisy starts to tell Nick an anecdote about “the butler’s nose.” The anecdote sheds light on the careless nature of wealthy Americans; the butler, a human being, becomes nothing more than a humorous vehicle to start a conversation, and he is soon forgotten.

Examples of Anecdote

Anecdote Example 1. The story of past bravery you tell a girl you want to impress is an anecdote.

Anecdote Example 2. The coach who talks about the “big game” when he was in high school is relating an anecdote.

Anecdote Example 3. In John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men, Lennie tells George anecdotes about the farm they will someday have together.

Anecdote Example 4. The story of Helen Keller’s learning sign language at the pump with her teacher, Annie Wilkes, is a powerful anecdote about the human will to communicate and persevere.

Anecdote Example 5. The story of the First Thanksgiving allows Americans to feel a common bond.

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