Beware the person who says they are going to tell you a funny story - Ian McMillan

I was on a train the other day and the two men across the aisle were telling each other stories;

There is a skill in being able to tell a good story says Ian.

Now, I spend my life informing people in writing workshops that there aren’t really any rules to storytelling and narrative and I stick by that but if there were any rules to storytelling and narrative, then these two would be breaking them into pieces and leaving shattered and useless on the ground.

The first man, let’s call him Man 1, broke a rule straight away by telling his mate that the tale he was about to relate was going to be funny.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

That really is a no-no. Never build up an audience’s expectation because it’s a long way to fall when the view from the summit isn’t quite what you or they expected.

So Man 1 said: “Now this will make you laugh. It’s so funny. When it happened to me the other day I was laughing so much I had to get my inhaler out.” Now that in itself is quite a funny line but that wasn’t the line that was meant to be funny so everybody ignored it. Man 1 paused so that Man 2 (let’s call him that) could say: “Tell me then.”

Man 1 launched into an anecdote so convoluted and meandering that from above it would have looked like a mature river making its steady way across a floodplain. I can’t repeat the whole story here because it would fill up the entire magazine, but it began like this...

“Well, it was last Thursday or was it Friday? Anyway, I’m sure it was Thursday and I’d just come out of the house to get the bins in because Thursday is the bin day, except sometimes they have to alter the day and a couple of weeks ago it was a Monday or it might have been a Tuesday and anyway I was just going out to get the bins in and…”

Yes, you’re right. It’s not riveting and it’s not hilarious. Not yet, anyway. Man 2 interrupted the story with the start of a narrative of his own: “Our Clive once chased the bin wagon down the street because he’d accidentally chucked an important letter in the recycling. That was a Tuesday. Or it might have been a Monday.”

So now we have two parallel stories going on at the same time, neither of which are getting to the point. It often happens that a story somebody tells you will remind you of something that happened to you, but I think it’s better to let the person tell their story before you start telling yours.

There was a very brief moment of silence and then Man 1 carried on. “So anyway, I’d gone to get the bins out but that isn’t the funny bit, the funny bit is coming up, the really funny bit is coming.” Man 2 ignores this and carries on with his own dustbin epic.

I’ll let you into a secret: neither story was funny. There: that’s saved you some time.