Fallback Stories

If a conversation seems to be dying out or droning along, you might want to have some fallback stories to reinvigorate your interaction. These are extremely short incidents that you can narrate to get the other person’s opinion or ask how they’d react in the same situation. The emphasis here is on the discussion and opinion. For example, you can tell them about how a girl broke with stereotypes and proposed to her boyfriend, following it up with a question on what they’d do in a similar situation. This can spark a surprising conversation.

Fallback stories, as I like to call them, can be used as fallbacks (duh) when you run out of things to say. But they can also be used to engage people, invigorate a conversation, or get a rise and laugh out of people who feel a bit too stiff at the moment.

What makes a fallback story different from a normal story?

Well, a fallback story has four distinct components—but don’t worry, they come fairly naturally and organically once you’ve had a tiny bit of practice with them.

I’m also not that focused on the storytelling aspect itself, as that tends to work itself out (and actually not matter too much) once you have the other components in place.

There are four components to fallback stories: (1) the bridging sentence, (2) the story itself, (3) your opinion of the story, and (4) asking for the other person’s opinion in a few different ways. As I said, you will very quickly get used to this process because it is very natural.

First off, here’s an example. Imagine that a conversation is dying down, or there is a lull between topics.

(1) Hey, you know what I heard recently?

(2) One of my female friends just proposed to her boyfriend, and now they are engaged. Apparently she just didn’t want to keep waiting and decided to be progressive and ignore gender roles and take her life into her own hands. She even had a ring and everything.

(3) When I first heard about it, I generally thought why not, it’s 2020! I know them both and it kind of suits their relationship.

(4) What do you think about that? Would you ever do that? How would you react if your significant other did that with you? Would you do the ring as well?

At first glance, this seems like a casual, attention-grabbing story that will definitely engender conversation because of the way it was presented, and the questions posed at the end to continue discussion. You need not ask all of them together, since that would be a lot to remember. Have one or two questions that you can ask as a follow-up once you’ve told your story. A barrage of questions might just make the other person nervous about which one they should answer first or concentrate more heavily on. Each of the separate components plays an important role, however.

The first component is the bridging sentence, and while it is short, it provides a simple, plausible transition from whatever the previous topic was into your fallback story. You don’t need to say much with it, it just provides context for why you are even bringing the matter up. You just heard about it recently. Don’t overthink this part with protests like “How can you dive into that topic from silence or the former topic?” That’s what this bridging sentence does in an easy and quick way. “You know what I heard recently?” is a fairly flexible option, while others you can use include “Want to know something interesting that happened recently?” and “You won’t believe what happened the other day.” All three of these evoke some curiosity, giving you the perfect segue into your story.

The second component is the actual story itself. Now, notice that it’s not long, and the story details don’t even matter that much here. The story just introduces one or two main premises, and I don’t go into the nitty-gritty detail because that’s not what drives a conversation forward.

I introduce the premises, try to focus on the one or two primary emotions that I want to evoke, and move on from there. It’s short, and most storytelling books gum it up and make it too convoluted by introducing formulas for telling a simple story. If you tell the story right, the reaction isn’t about the story itself, it’s about the questions it poses (and that you pose).

Another way to conceptualize an effective and snappy story is to think “What is the primary emotion and point of the story I am trying to tell?” and distill that into one sentence. If you can’t, your stories are probably rambling messes that make people scream internally.

The third component is my opinion (as the speaker) on the matter. For most of these fallback stories, you want to provide a positive opinion; otherwise people may not feel comfortable opening up and sharing if they happen to disagree with you. In other words, if I said I thought it was a terrible decision that the female proposed to the male, the other person may refrain from saying they thought it was a good idea for fear of irking or contradicting me. Just share how you feel about it and try to place yourself in the context.

This component is key to opening the other person up, because you’ve shared first and made yourself vulnerable. The other person will feel safer after you’ve disclosed your position first—that’s just a facet of human psychology.

The fourth and final component seems like a series of inane questions, but there is logic to the chaos. When you ask someone to generally comment on a situation, most people have a tough time with this request because it is so open-ended and broad.

They have an infinite choice of directions to go and they aren’t sure of the exact question you asked.

“Would I do that?” they might be thinking. “What do you mean? Propose at all? If I were a woman, or as a man? I don’t understand the question you’re asking.”

Thus, fallback stories are best when concluded with a series of questions. The reason is that the type of answer you are looking for becomes clear when you ask a series of questions, and different questions will resonate with different people. So the person you’re speaking to might not really understand or have anything to say about the first three questions, but will light up upon hearing the fourth question… even if it is essentially the same question posed in a different way.

The reason I know this approach with a series of questions works is because you can physically see people’s faces light up when you ask a question that resonates with them and when they have something to answer with… again, even if it’s the same exact question worded differently.

Those are the four components of a good fallback story—and again, the best part about these is you can prepare them beforehand and carry them up your sleeve for whenever you feel you need to spice things up conversationally.

Does the above story seem like a good one? It never fails because it’s an interpersonal situation with universal themes and questions—which means that essentially everyone can have an opinion on it.

When you are thinking of what fallback stories to put up your sleeve, interpersonal situations tend to work for that reason. Other prompts that make good fallback stories include asking people what they would do in certain hypothetical situations, and asking for opinions on moral dilemmas (as long as they aren’t dark and depressing).

You’re going for universal themes above all else, because that’s when you can ensure that people will have something to add to the ensuing discussion, otherwise it will just turn into you telling a story about an interesting occurrence.

For example:

• My friend spent $300 on a meal, mostly on wine, for no apparent occasion or reason. In what circumstances would you spend $300 on a meal?
• My friend saw his friend’s significant other cheating on his friend. He told his friend. Would you tell? 
• Someone took a $40,000 pay cut to work at their dream job. Where is the line for you?
• Someone found out they had two weeks to live and went to Antarctica. Does that sound attractive to you, or would you do something completely different? 

Just remember to phrase these all into stories that seem to have randomly popped into your head, provide your opinion, and ask for their opinion in various ways.

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