Every story has a beginning. At Seattle’s monthly Moth StorySlam, it’s when diehards queue up three hours early at Fremont Abbey to score a wait-list audience spot at the sold-out event. Moth’s storytelling competition began in a Manhattan living room in 1997; now Moth holds events in 17 cities. “It sold out in Martha’s Vineyard, San Francisco, and New York. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten,” says tourist Marc Luers while standing in line.

And every story has an ending. Tonight’s will be when someone wins for best story and becomes eligible to perform nationally on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour. Ten bards will get a shot on the basement stage to address the theme of escape in a single, true narrative—with no notes. In line strangers ask each other, “Are you going to try?” Most answer no. Seattle is a story town, says producer Douglas Gale, a three-time winner, but some months only a handful of the 200 attendees volunteer. 

Every story needs suspense, and there’s plenty for Hope Koon, “professional storyteller” and preschool teacher, who’s animated with anticipation. “I was nervous yesterday, but I’m fine today,” she claims. “You were smoking cigarettes and driving around earlier,” counters her laconic boyfriend. 

At 8pm the story really gets rolling when scorekeeping duties are assigned to randomly selected audience members and entrant names are drawn. For two hours, tellers exposit on escapes from the Vietnam War, from an abusive Rastafarian stepfather, from the ennui of Lewiston, Idaho.

At intermission, entrant Jeff Haber can’t stop telling stories; a semicircle of listeners forms as he rattles off half tales of his Queens, New York, childhood. After the break, it’s the climax of the night for Koon. In a bright yellow dress, she’s unrushed and comfortable at the mic. Her story: how she escaped a lonely prepubescence through a rapturous crush on B-list celebrity David Spade. The crowd guffaws en masse.

The Moth story timer, tasked with tooting a five-minute warning on a pink recorder, never has to play Koon off the stage. She earns top scores (9.6, 9.1, 9.4), unchallenged until tonight’s twist ending: The very last storyteller, Douglas’s wife, Rosalie Gale, snatches the crown with a self-deprecating tale about a broken ankle and a cat whisperer. 

And finally, every story has an epilogue. Given the mic for an acceptance speech, Rosalie shrugs and says simply, “I like potatoes.” It’s the night’s shortest and last story.