How to Select the Right Information to Engage a Reader
If I give you the responsibility for filling in details, I engage you. Your details will differ from those in my head or the head of the person next to you, but that doesn’t matter. You will build the scene from your own experience and observation. All I have to do is give you a few clues.
About 50 people sat on folding chairs inside a small tent. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine what I was about to read, a simple scene I had written to illustrate the point. These are the three sentences; read them now and imagine the scene:
As I walked into the restaurant, my shoulder brushed the leaves of a potted palm. I gave my name and immediately I was seated by the window, where I could look out and think, until Kelly arrived. A napkin stood folded in front of me, but I made no attempt to place it in my lap.
They opened their eyes, and I asked, “Which shoulder brushed the potted palm?” At once, half the tent said, “Left,” half said, “Right.” “Who seated me, a man or a woman?” Two to one, a woman. “How was this person dressed?” I asked. “Where was this person standing?” “What is the time of day?” “Are other people in the restaurant?” “How pricey is the food?” “Who is Kelly?” “Who am I?” And my favorite, “What color is the napkin.” Half said, “White.” The other half said, “Sort of a creamy color.” Or, “Very pale pinkish-orange.” Or, “Kind of a light, mint green.” None of this information was in the three sentences, yet they saw it.
That night, in the house on the lake, in front of all those authors I didn’t know, I sang. But if I tell you what each person wore, the color of the walls, the weave in the carpet, the glow from the lamps, the art of the owner, the beams in the ceiling, you will have nothing to do, and I will not engage you. I have provided you with only a few clues: the occasion, some of the people there, and that it was night. I have also mentioned the wine and the nice woman. But that is all. And yet, you see me there, singing.
I will add one detail for your picture. When the nice woman handed me the glass of wine and told me I must sing, she said that everyone in the room already had sung, that I was the last one. It was a tradition. I thought, How ‘bout I be the first one to break the tradition? But then I thought, Maybe I should just blunder my way through some song, embarrass myself, and be a good sport. Twenty years from now, what difference will it make? So in front of all those people I did not know, I sang, and I sang with conviction, even passion. White wine in one hand, I felt nightclubby, like a Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr. The song? “Scotch and Soda.” Why, I have no idea; it just popped out. Mud in your eye, remember? Baby do I feel high, o me o my, do-o I feel high. Dry martini, jigger of gin, o what a spell you’ve got me in, o my . . . .
Okay, one more detail: the nice woman lied; no one else had sung. I was the only one.
All I need is…one of your smiles, the sun…shine of your eyes, o me o my . . . .