In defense of chapter-opening anecdotes, also known as “malcolms”

Stian Westlake’s Malcolm gallery

In Medium, Stian Westlake rails against “The Tyranny of Malcolms,” that is, those Malcolm Gladwellesque anecdotes people often use to open nonfiction book chapters. Since I’ve written (both in this blog and in my new book) that you should consider opening your chapters with a story, I feel compelled to explain why it’s still a good idea — and how, if you’re ham-handed about it, you are likely to generate reactions like Westlake’s.

Why Westlake is annoyed

Westlake defines a “malcolm” this way:

malcolm (n.) A folksy anecdote used to begin a chapter in a popular nonfiction book, in an attempt to draw in uninterested readers. (Named for Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963), who popularised the technique and spawned many less sure-handed emulators)

If you have uninterested readers, you already have a problem. The real question is whether your interested readers remain interested. If you start your chapter with a rant or a long explanation, they probably won’t. If you start with a story, they are more likely to stick with you. Hence the popularity of malcolms.

Here are some of Westlake’s main points about the overuse of poorly written malcolms:

The problem is that, these days, malcolms seem to be absolutely everywhere. It’s as if a memo went out to every expert writing a popular book explaining that each chapter of their book has to begin with an anecdote, in the same way it has to have an index and page numbers. And as the quantity of malcolms has increased, the quality has declined. . . .

As I was saying, the ubiquity of malcolms means that most of them are not Gladwell-quality. Partly this is because they’re hard to write well. Writing emotionally resonant stories takes practice, and is a different type of skill from clear exposition of interesting research.

Researching malcolms is hard too. Finding an original and true story that speaks to your underlying general point requires real journalistic skill. One failure mode is deploying anecdotes that are under-researched and turn out not to be entirely true. . . .

What’s more, a writer also needs a good grasp of what sort of anecdotes their reader will find surprising, rather than trite or hackneyed. . . . To avoid this trap, you need to have a pretty good idea of what your typical reader will already have read, which is not easy. . . .

What’s perhaps most vexing about the overuse of malcolms — about the compulsion to always deploy them — is what it implies about people who read books. It rests on a subconscious assumption that what the author has to say is fundamentally a bit dull, and that the doltish reader must be cajoled into it with some spicy human interest.

Perhaps this is true if you’re trying to sell a niche nonfiction topic to millions of airport book buyers. If that’s your goal, you’ll want to use every writerly trick in the book to get them to care. And of course the rewards for doing that are huge. But assuming a more realistic definition of success, is spending time on great malcolms the best way to improve a book draft?

How to make your chapter-opening stories work

If you’re repeating often-told (and somewhat off-topic) stories at the top of your chapters, of course they’re going to annoy your reader. The first time you read about how Chewy sends flowers to people whose dogs have died, it’s touching. The third or tenth time, you begin to resent the author, and you should.

On the other hand, if you’re going to make the point that, say, people who network on LinkedIn should learn about the people they’re connecting with first, a story of somebody who did that and succeeded, or who failed to do it and fell flat on their face, makes the point extremely well. The whole point of these chapter-opening stories is to allow the reader to empathize with protagonist of the story.

In business books, at least, they’re a natural extension of the trend that began with the Harvard Business School case, in which we learn about a businessperson that has a challenge and try to think along with them to better understand the issues that they face. HBS learned that this is a very effective way to engage students to learn things in a visceral way, and that insight remains valid today. So, definitely, if you plunge your reader into a situation in which they think “I might do the same thing she did” or “I would never do what he did,” they’ll be far more likely to embrace the lesson of your chapter.

I made the unconventional choice in my own how-to book authors to start every chapter with a case-study story (which I refuse to call a malcolm). That’s because I know that you’ll learn more from reading stories of how Fotini Iconomopoulos faced off with writer’s block and how Jill Abramson inadvertently plagiarized than you would if I just spouted off about my opinion on those topics.

If you want your chapter-opening stories to work, then here’s how to get them right:

  • Research as many original stories as you can. This means finding people that everybody hasn’t already heard about. That’s work, but it’s worth it to avoid rehashing hackneyed and careworn stories that are already in lots of other books and presentations.
  • Conduct interviews. Find and interview your protagonists. That’s how you find out what really happened and keep the story fresh and interesting.
  • Make sure your stories are relevant. If a story makes the point you’re trying to make, keep it. If it doesn’t, dump it, even if it’s amusing. Otherwise, it’s just gratuitous.
  • Keep them short. Whether your protagonist has penetrating blue eyes or went to Stanford or has been married for 24 years is probably irrelevant. The details worth including are those that explain how they got to the moment you’re narrating and why they approached it the way they did.
  • Connect your stories to your ideas. The paragraph that follows a case study story is crucial. It should describe the point your story is making and why it’s relevant for the reader. Absent that “moral of the story,” a story is just filler.

Do it this way, and the stories will go down easy — and enchant your reader along the way. They’ll add to the credibility of what you’re writing, instead of further annoying malcolm-weary readers like Stian Westlake.

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