How to Background an Anecdote
(Includes 5 writing examples at the bottom!)
If you’ve done your homework on how to write an effective college application essay, you probably know the place to start is with your real-life stories.
The idea is to find moments, incidents and experiences from your past that illustrate a larger point you want to make about yourself in your essay.
Often, the best place to share an engaging mini-story (also called an anecdote) is at the very start of your piece.
The anecdote (mini-story) serves to “hook” or grab your reader’s interest at the start—something you always want in a standout application essay.
However, once you share that little moment, incident or mini-story (anecdote) that you have plucked out of time with little to no introduction, where do you go after that first paragraph or two?
When working with students on using this approach in personal essays, I advise them to take the reader back to the beginning and give some context to the moment they described in the anecdotal introduction.
HERE’S HOW YOU USE A RECORD SCRATCH
Recently, a student I was working with helped me discover a new way to explain this “backgrounding” of the anecdote.
When I told him about the process of rewinding that moment to describe the broader context of what it meant, he said, “Oh, you mean it’s like in a movie after something big happens, and they stop the action with a record scratch or freeze the frame, and someone says, “Oh! You are probably wondering how I got here?”
Exactly! I told him.
Watch This Clip to See Record Scratch in Action
In movies from the ’80s and ’90s, and even earlier, a cliche trope was to use what’s called the “Record Scratch” or “Freeze Frame” after the initial exciting moment (often plucked from the middle of the storyline; a device described in writing circles as en media res) to indicate the shift back to the beginning of the story’s timeline to explain how it all started.
I know all this writing lingo and terminology can start to sound confusing. But it’s actually really simple:
Start a personal, narrative-style essay by retelling something that happened to you, in a paragraph or two at the most (called an anecdote).
Use fiction-writing techniques, such as setting the scene with a few sensory details and including a line of dialogue (someone saying something.) Watch my short video on How to Write an Anecdote!
The moment or incident will only have lasted over the course of a few minutes.
There is little to no build-up or explanation; you start as close to the crucial point of action as possible.
Then, in the following paragraph, you shift gears (Can you hear the needle scratch a vinyl record–the Record Scratch?) and take the reader back to “It all started when….”
In this paragraph you explain the context and meaning of that moment or incident you started with as an anecdote.
Here’s how it works in a personal essay:
- Anecdote that recounts something that happened to you
- Record Scratch: Shift BACK IN TIME so you can start at the beginning and explain what it means.
3. You then continue with your essay to explore, examine, analyze, reflect upon more about that thing that happened and how it reveals something about how you are, your personality and character.
4. A big part of the rest of the essay is more introspective, where you dig deeper to think about and share what you learned about yourself in the process of whatever happened.
5. Wrap it up.
I think you will get this process if you read some examples.
Here are the starts of FIVE sample essays from my collection, Heavenly Essays, written mainly by former students who used this approach. I identified the ANECDOTE and RECORD SCRATCH/BACKGROUND in red text:
Laguna Beach, CA
University of California, Berkeley, CA
ANECDOTE: Dangling about 30 feet above the ground, I looked down on the entire neighborhood park with its rolling hills, vibrant green grass, and multiple tall eucalyptus trees. Buckled tightly in my brand new Diamond Mountain climbing harness, I admired my handiwork.
My old blue-and-black braided climbing rope thrown over a branch held me aloft, while a slipknot I tied while hoisting myself up prevented my descent. After a few minutes, I decided to return to the ground, but realized my knot grew too tight for me to untie. I was stuck.
BACKGROUND: Ever since my dad taught me the Bowline in second grade, the intricacy of knots has fascinated me. I spent hours mastering the craft, reading every knot book and website I could get my hands on. All my knots usually came in handy. In 8th grade, I won a competition in the Boy Scouts with a square knot, beating the instructor who taught an alternative knot that took longer to tie. A couple years later, I rescued my brother’s pickup out of the mud with the unbreakable loop of the Bow Line during one of our off-road adventures. I even returned a stranded rock climber’s lifeline by tying a Sheep’s Bend between a small piece of paracord and his climbing rope. …
Laguna Beach, CA
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA
Call Me Crazy
ANECDOTE: After two hours of intense racing on the open water, we thought our day was done. Instead, our coach ordered us to race another five miles home, rowing as hard as when we came. Stuck in the middle of the harbor with seven other teammates in the crew boat, there was nowhere to hide.
“Give me a reason to call 911,” coach yelled. Drained and exhausted, I could feel my eyes starting to close. Tunnel vision set in. For a few moments, I blacked out.
I had been here before. This was the point where I had to push my body to do the opposite of what my brain wanted me to do: Go even harder. I focused on the coxswain yelling at me, and hoped my adrenaline wouldn’t wear off. …
I first joined the team as a freshman, I only knew a little about this sport. My older brother warned me about the ridiculous hours and tough workouts. The one thing no one told me, though, is that to row crew you had to be a little crazy. It’s not the mentally insane type of crazy, but the type where you force yourself to disregard all logic and reason and push yourself to keep going.
Laguna Beach, CA
California State University, Long Beach, CA
A Small World
ANECDOTE: While grabbing lunch between games at a water polo tournament, I noticed one of my new teammates rarely looked me in the eye. Instead of taking the empty seat next to me, he opted to sit across the table. Even when I tried to start a conversation with him, he only looked down, and mumbled, “Oh, hey,” and walked away.
BACKGOUND: This type of cold-shoulder treatment wasn’t new to me. I’m a big guy. In bare feet, I’m about 6 feet 7 inches tall, and I’m pushing 300 pounds. Yes, it can be a pain. I bump my head going through doorways, I don’t fit in most mid-size cars, and I can barely squeeze into most classroom desks. But I understand that the world is made for average-sized people, and I like to think I’m above average. One thing, however, is hard for me to take: People who don’t know me assume I’m mean. …
Gabrielle Mark Bachoua
San Diego, CA
University of California, Davis, CA
ANECDOTE: As my mom backs out of our driveway, I glance at the back seats to make sure my basketball gear is there, along with my schoolbooks, phone charger, and beat-up copy of Catch- 22. We slowly wind through my neighborhood and over about a half dozen speed bumps, then pull onto the highway heading south with the other Sunday traffic.
I sit back and watch the familiar landmarks—the large Denny’s sign with the missing “N,” the short stretch of undeveloped land, the Shell billboard that meant we were almost there—flash past my window.
BACKGROUND: I’ve made this 20-mile trip between my parents’ homes for the last decade, four times a week, ever since they divorced when I was seven. I must have taken it more than a thousand times. Sometimes I dreaded getting into that car, and resented my parents for putting my older sister and I through the circular logic that moving us back and forth will make our lives normal because we see each parent often, but moving back and forth isn’t normal, unless they make it normal, which isn’t normal. Now I know it makes sense because normal isn’t ideal, normal is the unexpected and the crazy and the unforgiving. …
New York University, New York, NY
ANECDOTE: On our way to get fish tacos, about eight blocks from my house, I spotted the sign out of the corner of my eye. “Stop the car!” I shouted. Blake slammed on the brakes and threw the car into reverse. My eyes hadn’t deceived me, the hand- written sign read: “Free Trampoline.”
BACKGROUND: Ever since I can remember, I have loved turning other people’s trash into my personal treasures. I cannot walk past a garage sale without digging through the neighbor’s junk. Over the years, I have even decorated my room with accessories from various sales and giveaways. …
Give Them a Try!
I hope these examples give you a clearer idea of how to use this approach in using your own real-life stories to power you personal essays for college application essays.
Remember, even though these are narrative (story-telling) essays, they are not one long story.
Instead, they use an anecdote (small moments, incidents and experiences) as an example of a larger point the writer wants to share and explore about himself or herself in the rest of the essay.
You can learn how to write your own narrative essay and craft engaging anecdotes by reading my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell! I also teach this same step-by-step process in my online writing course.
If you want to read more of the sample essays, they are in Heavenly Essays.
You can also learn about this process by reading posts on this blog. My suggestion is to use the Find Helpful Posts INDEX on the right side of my blog, or enter topics you want help with in the SEARCH box (such as: Finding a Topic, How Write an Anecdote, etc.)
This is one of my favorite posts to help you get going: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Easy Steps