Turning Your Anecdote into a Short Story: Part 1
Creating fiction based on real life events presents some challenges. So I was excited to discover an old essay on this topic, by one of America’s famed short story writers, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). Jackson identifies issues worth thinking about when you are turning a real-life anecdote into a short story.
Where to get story ideas
Jackson was often asked: Where do you get your ideas? How do you ever manage to think them up?
She believed stories originate in a writer’s personal experience, the ‘everyday happenings and emotions’. But fiction writers rarely rely on a single inspiration. They draw on ‘many little gestures and remembered incidents and unforgettable faces’. Perhaps this multiple borrowing is why writers often give such unsatisfying answers when asked, Where did you get that idea?
Recognising and analysing
Jackson did not believe turning life events into fiction was a ‘mystic’ process. She stressed the importance for writers to use recognition and analysis.
Writers need to recognise, and capture, useful personal experiences. Once Jackson was trying to open the door of her old fridge, which stuck in wet weather. Her daughter asked why she didn’t use magic. Jackson could have kept yanking on the fridge door. Instead, she sat down and considered her daughter’s question. The result was a story about some children, a fridge, and magic. This example illustrates the importance of paying attention to ideas when they appear. Much may be revealed—if we are receptive.
(Jackson later sold the story and used the money to buy a new fridge.)
Drawing on trash ‘n treasure
Nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something . . .
Imagine your brain as a huge trash ‘n treasure shop. Squirrelled away in the shop is everything in your life that your mind remembers, everything it has caught and stored. Experiences, feelings, dreams, conversations. Others’ accounts. Material from books, poems, films, and other media. You can ferret through the treasures (valuable stuff) and trash (oddities that might work), getting inspiration and finding details to include in your piece. The challenge is in choosing elements that best fit your subject.
Story-like Is Not Story
Anecdotes are story-like, often with a clear point or lesson, and they do well on their own. But when we try turning one into a full-blown, nuanced story, we can strike problems.
Jackson referred to a real-life anecdote from one of her students. The student thought she had made the anecdote into a ‘perfect’ short story. Here it is, summarised:
The high point of a village church fair is the raffling off of a beautiful quilt made by one of the local ladies. The quilt ‘has been the talk of the town for weeks. . . .’ and all the village women admire it and hope to win it. The raffle is held. Who wins the quilt? A summer visitor, ‘a wealthy woman who has no use for the quilt and no desire for it.’ She sends her chauffeur up to the stage to get the quilt and bring it back to her car.
Jackson wrote that the account was not a fictional story at all, but only a ‘bald description’. Why does it fail? Jackson gave three reasons:
- It does not fulfil fiction’s purpose
We have all heard someone in a fiction class/workshop protest any suggested changes to their story, on the grounds that ‘It really happened like that.’ Jackson pointed out that the purpose of real-life anecdote differs from that of fiction. The real-life anecdote aims to tell the truth—This really happened, no matter how far-fetched. Fiction aims to engage readers—Imagine this. Stories do have an inner ‘truth’ or plausibility, but it differs from real-life truth. Not having to deal with real-life truth is liberating. Writers can take from the anecdote whatever seems useful. They may discard bits, add new material, or twist elements to develop something quite different.
- It does not get readers emotionally involved
Jackson wrote that readers become more emotionally invested when they know what characters feel. The anecdote, as it stands, does not provide a sense of the characters’ emotions, nor how their feelings change within the story.
- Its stakes are too low
Jackson thought the anecdote did not bring anything important to the fiction table. Its main point—that the woman who wins the raffle is the only one who does not want the quilt—is simply coincidence.
Jackson decided to detail how the student’s tale could be transformed into an effective story:
. . . [T]he same incident, carefully taken apart, examined as to emotional and balanced structure, and then as carefully reassembled in the most effective form, slanted and polished and weighed, may very well be a short story.
My next post covers Jackson’s specific changes.