Story structure and theme in Ira Glass' anecdote and reflection
Summary: One of the most basic story structures is two parts: anecdote and reflection. A series of meaningfully related events, and a thematic argument explaining what it was all about.
Note: This post contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park.
- An anecdote is a series of events. Glass defines it as a “sequence of actions. This happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing . . .” (Glass)
- A moment of reflection is the “bigger something” that the narrative is all about. (Glass)
Glass developed his formula in nonfiction radio storytelling, but it can apply to fiction just as well. In fact, the form is nearly identical to what fiction author Dwight Swain called a “double-barreled attack” of “pleasurable tension plus ultimate satisfaction.” (Swain, Page 130</sup>
The anecdote creates a pleasurable tension as the series of events play out. The moment of reflection pays it off with satisfaction in some kind of resolution.
For example, in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, the anecdote is a series of events surrounding the Bennett daughters’ quest to marry well, securing their future from uncertainty. Audiences are treated to wondering what will happen next as Elizabeth and her sisters navigate (and create) various challenges with their potential suitors in Georgian English society.
The reflection is that, having come to realize that they misjudged one another, Elizabeth and Darcy end up together. We all need the patience and humility to really see each other, not just the first impressions brought by society and manner.
In Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Jurassic Park, the anecdote is a series of events surrounding the main characters’ exploration and subsequent escape from the doomed theme park. Audiences ride along with the characters as they encounter different dinosaurs and overcome obstacles, first anticipating the terrifying moment when things will go wrong and then wondering how the main characters will survive.
The reflection is that, having endured the ordeal and escaped, Dr. Grant has learned to embrace the chaos and uncertainty of the future (metaphorically represented by his relationship to children), which cannot — and should not — be totally controlled.
In Glass’ nonfiction radio work, the moment of reflection could be explicit and non-narrative. Literally, “this is what the events taught me.” When applied to fiction, the moment of reflection is almost always implied, folded into the narrative itself. It’s what story theorists call the “thematic argument,” the claim that the story asks its audience to consider.
Anecdote and reflection need one another
Glass points out that a series of events on its own doesn’t really make a compelling story. To feel complete, a story needs to explain itself.
He goes on to observe that story form implies resolution. The events of the anecdote raise a question: “Where is this all going?” In Glass’ words, the anecdote is a “train that has some destination.” (Glass) (Emphasis mine.) It’s a kind of promise to the audience.
The moment of reflection is the payoff of the promise, the destination of the train. It answers the question raised by the anecdote and gives the story meaning. Without it, the story ending feels unsatisfying. Audiences might express frustration: “It didn’t go anywhere. It just ended.”
The converse is also true. A moment of reflection, by itself, feels hollow. It’s just a propositional statement. In a sense, the events of the anecdote are a demonstration of the thematic argument. They are the “evidence” of which the reflection is the conclusion. They make the thematic argument feel earned.
To be most effective, the two need each other.
Constructing anecdote and reflection
Anecdotes need meaningfully related events
Good anecdotes are constructed by stringing together a series of meaningfully related events.
Remember how Glass defined the anecdote:
“This happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing . . .” (Glass)
Note how, in his example, the events are causally linked. One event “led to” another. That little link established by the “led to” is important. Causality creates meaningful relationships.
For example, in the midpoint of Jurassic Park, a Tyrranosaurus Rex attacks a car with children inside. This presents Dr. Grant with a choice. Being a paleontologist, he knows about the animal’s capabilities. He is uniquely positioned to step into the situation and distract the T-Rex from its attack on the children. But in doing so, he will put himself at risk. He makes the heroic choice, saving the children. After the attack is over, he and the children set off to cross the park together on foot.
In this example, the event of the T-Rex attack had a causal relationship with Dr. Grant’s choice. It forced him to decide whether or not to step in and save the kids. And, Dr. Grant’s choice to save the kids placed them in a position to cross the park together.
Another way to meaningfully relate events is through their connection to theme or motif. You can do this most easily by setting up comparisons. When they are juxtaposed together, what do the different events or images say about each other and the characters?
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has no less than three potential suitors over the course of the narrative. Darcy is rich but apparently aloof and cold. Wickham is charming and warm but turns out to be a scoundrel. Collins is a buffoon.
Similarly, the Bennett sisters themselves are each contrasting examples. Jane is humble and gracious. Elizabeth is smart but can be judgmental. Mary is bookish and asocial. Kitty is prone to influence by her younger sister. Lydia is a flirt.
As the events of the story unfold, the contrasts between the qualities of the different suitors and different sisters come into sharp relief, each telling us something about the theme. Thus, even when not directly causing one another, they are linked by a shared meaning.
You don’t have a true anecdote unless the events are meaningfully related somehow.
What about reflection?
Reflections are layered into the events of the anecdote
Remember that, in our definition, the reflection is the story’s thematic argument. The thematic argument is most commonly expressed through character decisions and the resulting consequences; but, like the events of the anecdote, it can also be conveyed through image and motif.
In classically-structured stories, the thematic argument lands in the climax and resolution, but it is established at the very beginning and spans the entire story.
Key moments throughout the story help to build and validate the thematic argument. For example:
- Early in the story, there may be a statement of the thematic argument by a secondary character, which the protagonist will reject (or at least be unable to assume for herself). (“Hollywood Formula”) Right before their call to adventure in Jurassic Park, for example, Dr. Sattler teases Dr. Grant about having kids. He declines the notion.
- In the later part of the second act, the protagonist will often face a “dark night of the soul.” (Snyder, Pages 86-89) Having tried everything her way and failed, she will have to grapple with the thematic argument, and, in a moment of insight, finally surrender and commit herself to it. In Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant’s all is lost moment comes when one of the children’s hearts stops after he is shocked by high-voltage wires. Dr. Grant’s desperation — and his ensuing joy when the child revives — demonstrate to both Dr. Grant and the audience that his relationship with children (and the future) is changing.
- Then, at the climax, the protagonist will, in the words of screenwriter and director Craig Mazin, “embody the truth of the theme . . . through action.” (Mazin) In the climax of Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant once again finds himself in a position where he must risk his own life to save the kids, bodily placing himself in between them and a couple of clever and determined velociraptors.
Lastly, the protagonist’s starting point and ending point across the entire span of the story create a comparison that demonstrates the thematic argument.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth begins the story judging Darcy because of his apparent lack of manner. She ends the story ashamed at how she and her circle misjudged him, discerning the kind heart behind his cold exterior and understanding the insecurities that led to his behavior.
In Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant begins the story hating children (a metaphor for the chaos of the future) and literally digging up petrified fossils of proto-birds from the solid and immovable earth. He ends the story with a child at each side, having risked his life to save them, watching birds fly over the fluid and ever-changing waters.
Ultimately, reflection is created through comparison. Juxtaposing events, images, and character decisions from one point of the story to to another illustrates change; and that change — and how it came about — communicate the thematic argument.
One of the most basic story structures is two parts: anecdote and reflection. A series of meaningfully related events, and a thematic argument explaining what it was all about.
When done well, they deliver for your audience, giving them, in Swain’s words, “pleasurable tension plus ultimate satisfaction.”
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