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Danny Wallace on the tricky art of impact storytelling

I am at a party and I’ve just been introduced to an elegant, older lady who asks the following question with great interest: “And what made you decide to move here?”

Well, having recently moved house, this is the perfect question for me, and I have plenty of intricate details with which to fascinate and thrill her. This is the best possible move she could have made this evening. And she can have her choice of stories! Perhaps I will begin with the tale of the moment we made the decision, as seems to be her wish. Or maybe I will tell her one of my brilliant removal men stories, then segue into a sad tale of a broken picture frame that wasn’t boxed properly.

But, no. I know exactly what to start with. A story that builds and builds to an exciting crescendo, and – when best told! – ends with the line “And in the end we thought better of it!” Sure, it’s a three-to-four-minute commitment with built-in breathing space for gasps, adlibs and questions, but now at least her fun is assured.

“Well,” I begin, a knowing smile on my face. “It’s an interesting story.”

And as she nods me on, I start small and build up. I set the scene, establish the tone. I introduce the players in the story with an amusing thumbnail character sketch about each. I plant a detail that may seem innocuous now, but will play quite a pivotal turning point later on. And, of course, I am safe in the knowledge that all the while I will be rocketing towards “And in the end we thought better of it!”

And I’m doing well. Oh, I’m doing so well. You’d be so proud of me. I twist and turn, I dip and dodge, I paint a picture, and I’ve got her.

And just as I’m getting to “And in the end we thought better of it!” – the very second I’m about to say it – she says, “Oh, hold on,” and walks away.

What!? Shut the front door! This is bull nonsense!

I’ve been left hanging. The final sentence is still trapped in my throat. I watch her as she touches a woman’s arm and says something like “tell your mother”, and nods to show she means it.

A different woman tries to offer me a canapé, but I just stare at the first woman and wave the second one off. I cannot allow the flow of my story to be compromised, nor the next words out of my mouth not be, “And in the end we thought better of it!”

The first woman walks back.

“So…” I say, but I can’t just launch into “And in the end we thought better of it!” I need to make sure she’s been keeping up, so it still makes sense. My mind races. I’ll have to reword the last few bits, just so it doesn’t seem I have a script.

“That’s Kathy’s daughter,” says the woman. “Do you know Kathy?”

What the actual fudge?!

No, I don’t know who Kathy is! Leave me alone! I’m trying to reword an off-the-cuff story!

“I don’t,” I say politely, and we’re getting further from my end sentence, so I leave just long enough a gap afterwards to make it seem like we’ve had a great chat about Kathy’s daughter, but now it’s time to finish my story. “So.”

“She did economics at Durham.”

“Did she?” I say.

Could not give a funk.

“So the thing about what I was saying, was…”

“Lovely girl, actually,” she says, sipping her drink.

I’m losing her! I was so close to finishing but I’m losing her! I need to regroup. Rethink my strategy. Oh, cruel fate. But I will hold my nerve. I must not rush my way to “And in the end we thought better of it!” With enough time to realise, surely she’ll say, “God, sorry, what were you saying?” and give me my in.

But she’s staring at people, sipping her drink. And as I watch her, a terrifying realisation sets in.

Could it be…?

No. No, there’s no way. Absolutely not.

But could it? Could it be that… my story was not as interesting as I thought?

OF COURSE NOT. That’s madness! And she’s the one who brought the topic up in the first place! And even if it was boring, all she had to do was use the in-built radars we have evolved over thousands of years of terrible party-based storytelling to sense the end was nigh! She was one sentence away from laughing politely and getting on with her life! And yet now all I’m doing is thinking, “How can I trick this woman into letting me finish my story?” I can’t abandon it. It’s no man left behind!

However, to get to the last line I’m going to have to recap the story from the beginning and remind her of the innocuous detail I planted, in order to fully ensure she understood the pivotal turning point.

But as she greets another guest, the brilliance of my story evidently lost on her, I realise something. I am not a performing monkey. I do not need to give this woman my story. I am going to punish her, harshly. I am going to keep this story from her!

And then she realises I’m still there, and says, “And what made you decide to move here?”

I stare at her for a second.

You must be fudging kidding me.

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