I knew I was going to be late. It was almost 6:30 p.m. and I wasn’t even close to where I needed to be to pick her up. I got more and more stressed as I neared the school, realizing that her best friend had not gone to practice that day and that she was alone. As I neared the pickup area at 6:36, I saw her ponytails and when she turned, I instantly waved, letting her know that I was there.
Then I saw it. An emotion that I had felt before, and now I saw it written all over her face. She started to run, ponytails flopping in the sun, and then the tears started to flow. Those six minutes had been an eternity to her. My thoughts turned to a time when I had told my own mother that I would never be late for my kids when I was a mom.
I teach college writing, and at the beginning of every semester, my students and I spend some time talking about narrative writing, specifically how to write a memoir. We discuss how narrative writing tells a story, and more specifically, how memoir writing is a first-person account of a memorable event in a writer’s life.
One of the narrative techniques I have my students practice is to “show not tell.” This is a method where instead of saying that someone is lazy, you show how they are lazy. In other words, I ask students to use anecdotes in their writing. To be clear, anecdotes are little stories that writers or speakers use to demonstrate or show something to the reader without having to “tell” how it is. Anecdotes are also defined as short and interesting stories, often intended to support or demonstrate a point.
In the piece above, I could have just told the reader that I was late picking up my daughter from school. Instead, I started out by sharing an anecdote about me as a mother. It is one of many small incidents that show I am definitely not perfect―and I may have a problem with being late for appointments.
In the following sections, I want to share a few more anecdotes about mothers to “show” rather than “tell” about who they are, and what I know about them. My goal is to show my reader specific things about each mother, rather than just say it (or tell it point blank).
As you read the next anecdote, think about how you get invited into the story, versus standing outside of it.
We were all at a little restaurant having breakfast, and when Mom noticed that the orange juice was way over our price range, she got right up and excused herself out of the booth. She grabbed her purse and tromped over to the grocery across the street. Dad and my two sisters and I saw her through the diner window as she came out a few minutes later with a large can of orange juice. She returned to the booth, asked the waiter for three glasses of ice, and proceeded to pour each one of her children a large glass of orange juice. She made sure to comment on how important it was that each of us had our daily dose of vitamin C.
By including this small incident (or anecdote), the writer is able to show that his mother was very concerned about her children’s health, enough to embarrass all of them that day in a public restaurant. (When my husband’s Uncle Vaughn shared this story at Great Grandma Phyllis’s funeral a few years back, he said that in that moment, he knew that he was loved.)
The next anecdote is one about my own mother. Notice again how you, the reader, are invited into the scene, and how you even get to hear what was said in that moment. When a writer uses quotation marks to “show” actual conversation, they are using dialogue. Dialogue is the easiest way to invite your reader into your piece.
I looked around in the crowd of Jazz fans and could not locate her. Where did she go? How did I lose her already? The game had just ended and I was by her side a minute ago … It was then that I noticed a large group starting to grow around two men. They had obviously had a few too many and were yelling and throwing punches. That was when I heard her voice―that voice that I knew all too well. “Now boys, let’s break it up. You don’t want to do this!” Mom had both of them by the arm, and the look of shock on their faces was priceless.
“That’s my mom,” I whispered to myself with pride.
I share this anecdote quite often when I tell people about my mom. This shows others how, in my eyes, she might be the bravest mom in the world. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be just like her. (If you are wondering what happened after, luckily she didn’t get punched. After she broke up the fight, she quickly found me, and we went for ice cream.)
The following anecdote is written a bit differently. So far, all of the anecdotes have been written in first-person point of view, meaning the writer has used “I” to tell the story firsthand. The next anecdote is written in third-person point of view, meaning the author is narrating the story about the characters or people involved. Writers can choose if they want to use first person or third person. It can make a big difference in how the story comes across to the reader and how much the reader gets to know about each character.
Brad and Karlie walked into the room. Karlie hadn’t expected this many people to be there. There were at least thirty couples in the room, talking and waiting for the meeting to start. Karlie thought to herself, “Did they all want to be foster parents too?” She had no idea that these meetings would be so crowded. The group leader instructed them to interview another couple. The woman was Karlie’s same age, in her early forties. They were trying to have kids, but in the meantime they wanted to foster a child. Karlie was struck by this woman’s strong desire to mother―whether her own child or someone else’s child didn’t seem to matter. She told Karlie with tears in her eyes, “I don’t care if it is a girl or a boy, or how old they are, I know when they call me I’ll take them.”
This story shows the real desire couples have to start a family, even if it is in an unconventional way. As the reader, I can’t help but get caught up in it because the writer allows me to hear the woman say how ready she is to care for any child who needs a family. As discussed earlier, the use of dialogue shows the reader the type of person this mother is. Dialogue can bring the story to life―inviting the reader to the scene―in such a way that we feel like we are there.
Further, when the writer describes the “tears in her eyes,” they are providing the reader with descriptive details that help us to visualize and “see” the person being described. Descriptive details are often referred to as sensory details. They are called “sensory” because they refer to one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Use of sensory details in writing anecdotes is a surefire way to invite your reader in and help them feel as if they are watching a film in their head.
In addition to all of these essential elements for memoir, don’t forget that your writing style comes from the choices you make. They are your words, your sentences, and your paragraphs―nobody else’s. When the reader, your audience, can hear your personality and voice behind the words, they can’t help but feel connected to you and thus feel connected to your writing. In narrative writing, your voice is vital and is what makes your piece unique to you.
In conclusion, practice using dialogue, point of view, and sensory detail, along with your own voice behind the words, and you will be sure to be a more successful writer. Using anecdotes as you write will allow you to show your readers something in a lively and interesting manner rather than just telling them matter-of-factly. Even more, anecdotes give the reader a story to visualize in their head as they read.
LET’S PRACTICE …
EXERCISE #1: Anecdote showing characteristics rather than merely telling
– a rude driver
– a rude sales clerk
– a rude customer
– an honest customer
– a mean fifth grader
– an overly cautious driver
– a selfish brother or sister
– a slick salesperson
– a generous friend
– an angry husband
– a sexist employer
– Use descriptive and sensory detail to “show” versus “tell.” For example, in order to describe an angry husband you could write: His jaw locked as he slammed his fist down on the cracked table.
– Try adding some dialogue to bring the reader into the scene.
Here are two student examples of Exercise #1. Try to guess which character trait the student is “showing.”
Every Sunday, every week, I always do my shopping for groceries with my wife. It is a common thing we do to prepare for the week of dieting and workouts. It’s quite an exasperating thing to do sometimes, but we know that it will benefit us later.
After some time of doing this, I noticed my wife becoming more irritated with me whenever we shopped. It seemed like everything I put in our cart made her mad. I just didn’t get it … was it the food I was buying or was it not something that she liked? It continued like this for a while.
Eventually, I paid attention to what I bought. We bought similar items, so there was no reason for her to be upset with me. Every 2–5 minutes, I noticed her rearranging the items in the cart. She whispered under her breath, “Veggies go here, snacks go here, drinks go here, household necessities are to be here.” I let those words slip from my mind as we kept shopping.
“I need to get bananas!” Grabbing the bananas, I put them on the baby seat. “All right, we ca—” There she went again, getting irritated with a loud grunt. She placed the bananas where the vegetables were.
We went home in silence.
On a Monday, a day when no one wants to be at school, my friend asked if I wanted to go out to lunch. We were both feeling a little off because it was a Monday after all, but also because we stayed up too late. As soon as the lunch bell went off I met him at his car. We got in and off we went.
“What do you want to eat?” he said.
I replied with, “I don’t have a lot of money right now so something cheap I guess.”
We decided on Astro Burger, but as we were pulling into the parking lot I was thinking if I had enough money to get something here. We went inside and looking at the menu I figured out that I could get some fries, and that was about it.
“What are you getting?” he asked.
I shrugged and said, “Probably a thing of fries.” He walked up to the register and ordered two cheeseburgers.
I teased, “Wow, you must be pretty hungry.”
He replied, “No. One is for you.”
EXERCISE #2: Anecdote to show your reader a real moment you have experienced in the past
– Include some of the essential elements we discussed earlier: point of view, descriptive and sensory detail, and dialogue. (In this piece, you will be writing in first-person point of view because it is your story you are telling.)
It is important to note that your entire memoir can’t be an anecdote. Anecdotes are small slices of story that demonstrate a specific point in your story or how you were feeling. You will have to “tell” parts of the story as well. I have labeled how this works in the example below, which is a selection from a student memoir titled, “A Fresh Start.”
[Writer starts with dialogue to draw the reader into the scene.] “I went to your school and gave them a piece of my mind.”
“What did they say and what are they going to do about Carter?” I asked.
“They said they are going to have a conversation with him and his parents, and that they are going to suspend him for a time.”
[Writer tells the story.] The next day at school I didn’t see him, he wasn’t at dance practice either which made me happy to see. Not seeing him all day gave me relief and I could tell that I was much happier. But what I didn’t know is that the school had decided to only have Carter suspended for a day. This meant that the following day at school he was the first person that I had ran into and of course he had something to say. This time he had some harsher things to say because he knew that I was the one that reported him.
[Writer continues with dialogue to draw the reader into the scene with an anecdote.]“Hey fat ass, you reported me but obviously it didn’t do anything,” he snarled. [Writer uses descriptive words like “snarled” to show how the dialogue was said.]
“Leave me alone, Carter.”
“Or what, are you going to run and hide in your shack?”
When I got home, I wanted to punch something or even throw something. I was hiding in my room cussing out the wall pretending that it was Carter. I would try to do homework or even play some video games to help calm myself down, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t focus and I just gave up on everything that I could think of doing. I ended up laying down in my bed, and just looked up at my ceiling. [Instead of saying he was angry, this writer uses an anecdote to show that he was angry with descriptive detail and voice.]
[Writer narrates or tells information.] The school basically slapped Carter’s hand and told him to stop and not to do it again. Which of course did not stop Carter. Every chance that Carter got he would shoot me down and did it with pride.