Anecdotal Evidence in Literature: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Maryalice Leister

Maryalice has taught secondary and college English and trained new online teachers, and has a master's degree in Online Teaching and Learning.

Anecdotal evidence in literature serves a variety of purposes. Readers are drawn in the direction the author wants them to go in order to advance the plot, reach the climax, and cement the conclusion.

Telling the Story

Anecdotal evidence in literature is not always what it seems. The nature of this type of evidence is the casual observational approach to the details and the intention of the author to sometimes misdirect to heighten the story's plot, add a humorous twist, or increase plot tension.

Detective Brunson arrived on the scene as the EMTs pulled up. He and his veteran partner, Johannsen, surveyed the area and saw other officers were detaining riders who were on the bus at the time of the stabbing. Each would need to be questioned separately with the hope the stories would align and yield important information leading to a capture and arrest.

Unfortunately, as often happened, few stories were the same, even though every person was on the bus when the stabbing occurred. One young woman had definitely seen a blonde man in his twenties wearing a green hoodie who would push the older gentleman before pulling out a switchblade and stabbing him. Absolutely a switchblade.

Another witness, an agitated senior citizen who was anxious to get home, swore the hoodie was blue, the attacker was in his forties, and the blade was hefty like a hunting knife. He had definitely seen the bone-colored handle. Successive interviews added diverse details, few of which matched but all would need to be examined. Brunson remained patient as he scribbled page after page of notes to be compared later. He knew dismissing any of the accounts could lead the investigation in the wrong direction.

The Purpose of the Anecdote

The simple definition of an anecdote is a story that is usually short and told from a personal observation point of view. Fiction is filled with anecdotes and is truly an anecdote in itself. The reader needs to recognize the difference between a witness or character saying 'I saw the burglar' versus telling the audience, 'I talked to my neighbor and she said she saw someone in the alley.' Each is anecdotal, but the farther away from first person a story originates, the less likely it is to be accurate - maybe. Remember, all is fair in fiction, and writers who are masters of surprise endings and twists of plot are beloved by readers. Authors such as J. K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, and James Patterson know exactly how to manipulate readers through anecdotal evidence to move the reader where they want them to go.

Anecdotal evidence is the opposite of scientific evidence because the former is driven by personal opinion and the latter is based on experimentation, methodology, and objective verification. For this reason, the anecdotal literary device is popular in crime fiction because it allows for conclusions to be questionable, precisely the way crime authors like it. Television schedules are filled with crime dramas (often based on crime series books such as the 'Bones' series based on novels by Kathy Reich) employing witnesses who deliver conflicting stories. Investigators then take on the task of using evidence to prove the truth and solve the crime, but the fun in the story is using the first person observations to draw the viewer into the story.

Examples and Explanations

Norman Cousins, the author of 'The Healing Heart: Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness,' (Avon books, 1984), tells us: 'The writer makes his living by anecdotes. He searches them out and carves them as the raw materials of his profession. No hunter stalking his prey is more alert to the presence of his quarry than a writer looking for small incidents that cast a strong light on human behavior.'

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