Stories within your stories

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

Anecdotes are a vital part of compelling storytelling. 

These are small stories that may open or close your larger story.

They also can appear almost anywhere in the middle.

John McPhee used an anecdote in a New Yorker article about environmentalist Edward Abbey.

In his book, Abbey wrote that he had killed a rabbit with a rock as an experiment. 

A woman in the audience demanded to know how he could do such a cruel thing. 

McPhee wrote: There was a long silence.

Finally Abby said, “I won’t do it again.”

Muted laughter rippled here and there.

Abbey was silent then finally said, “Not to that rabbit.”

Jason Fagone used a telling anecdote in the San Francisco Chronicle about Hamid Hayat, wrongfully convicted of terrorism, sentenced to prison on his 25th birthday, and finally set free after 14 years behind bars.

Fagone’s story examines Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks.

Here is the final anecdote that concludes the story:

Close to Christmas, Hamid was going too fast, heard a siren, pulled over and handed his ID to a police officer who squinted at his driver’s license.

“Are you the Hamid Hayat from Lodi?” the officer asked. 

Hamid said yes.

The man handed the card back. “Have a good day, sir,” he said. “You’ve been through enough.”

Shannon Gormley of the Ottawa Citizen used this snippet of conversation in an account of the Afghanistan exodus: A marine — tight T-shirt, big smile — escorted me from the airport.

“We’ve got a guy with us who started a bike club, has kids playing sports instead of shooting guns,” the marine said. He knew we’d all get along because we had to. “This place makes people like family.”

Encourage your interview subjects to share anecdotes with you.

They enliven your writing and your readers will love them, too.

If our reporters wrote better it would make editing their work easier. It would make our news and feature articles sing. But we lack the time to coach them. Here’s a secret. Help them with a copy of writing coach Jerry Bellune’s The Art of Compelling Writing, $9.99 at They’re worth the investment.

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