How to Make the Most of an Anecdote

Most of an Anecdote

When my brother returns from work of an evening I ask him how his day has been. He always replies the same: ‘yes, well, okay really.’ One day I asked him for a little more detail and he said that although he appreciated me asking about aerodynamics that I couldn’t possibly understand, I wouldn’t really be interested unless there had been a fight.

He was right. Unless the fat one had jumped on the tall skinny one because somebody’s calculator had gone missing I would probably just smile and nod. That’s the thing about telling stories – some are just not worth telling.

But on that rare occasion when you come across a blinder, how do you go about milking it dry for your audience’s pleasure?

Drama

If something dramatic happens in your life the chances are you’re going to want to share it with someone. The following happened to me during my first year of university:

Creepy Ian

There was always much banter to be had in my house in first year. One particular evening in an elaborate scheme of procrastination we’d invented the sport of fish-slice fencing, made an apple crumble, and worn a tea cosy on our heads so that we looked like the Pope. Hilarity.

Now at that time my housemate had an over-enthusiastic admirer, who was not a student and therefore didn’t comprehend the concept of essays and deadlines. He happened to choose this particular evening to pay my housemate a visit, my housemate who had no desire to see him as: a) he was a bit of a creep, and b) because lab reports and boyfriends do not go well together.

Undeterred, the gentlemen came, leaving me and my other housemate to get rid of him. We sent him on a wild goose chase around campus, hoping he would eventually get bored. He did not. When at last he returned after another fruitless search, we decided to leave him in a drunken heap in our hall and let him make his own way out.

We assembled in my room, heard the door slam eventually, and then laughed heartily about it all. As a joke my other housemate said she’d make a sweep of the area, taking her trusty fish-slice as protection.

On her return she beckoned me into the corridor: ‘don’t say anything,’ she said, ‘but he’s kind of sitting in her room.’

Right.

‘So we’ll just keep that a secret and it’ll be a nice surprise when she heads on up to bed.’

To cut a long story fractionally shorter, he left of his own accord with the university warden shaking his fist in an ‘and don’t come back’ manner, and then we sat in the kitchen for two hours with the light off just in case he returned.

What works?

So the first part of the story sets the scene, introducing something that will reappear (the fish-slice). The tone is generally higher than is required of a story such as this: the bloke definitely was not a ‘gentleman’ and we did not laugh ‘heartily’ as we were not drinking ginger beer in the Famous Five.

This allows the element of chance to be woven in the story: everything just ‘happened’ to come together. Finally dramatic stories work best if you keep adding to the improbable: your audience has to think that it can’t get much worse and often these bits are those that need the least embellishment – they should stand out on their own.

Comedy

On the flip side, making people laugh is a whole other can of worms. Writing comedy is arguably harder than writing drama, purely because comedy has to engender a specific reaction in your audience, something that for drama is much more open. Let’s examine the following:

Emmanuele and the table mat

It all started when I was doing my best to teach English to Italian children through a series of summer camps. I had given my 11 year-old kids the general instruction to decorate table mats with ‘things that they liked’; my colleague, Michelle, whose children were four years younger than my own, were given pens and the table mats and left to draw whatever they pleased. Maybe some instruction would have benefited these children, as, half an hour into the task a small boy came to show his table mat to Michelle. In amongst the horses, British flags, and other miscellaneous fluffy animals, seven year-old Emmanuele presented us with a perfect line drawing of a toilet. Plumbed in and everything.

What works?

That story is infinitely funnier than saying ‘I once taught a boy who drew a toilet on a table mat’. This is the difference between a funny anecdote and telling a funny anecdote. Like the dramatic story, we begin by setting the scene, in fact the majority of the story is context – in doing this it creates a very specific image for the audience to imagine and then we add the punchline: it is from here that the humour originates – in amongst the normality is the utterly ridiculous.

Adaptability

I love using anecdotes for inspiration because for once you have a very clear idea of what happened so the story telling becomes very real. Many of the best comedians work from observation as daily life can provide you with all the raw materials you need for a roaring success.