How to Select the Right Information to Engage a Reader
After dinner in town, I returned late to the home on the lake. The other authors had been there for a good while. When I walked in, a nice woman asked if I would like a glass of white wine. I said, “Yes, I would like that.” She brought it to me, extended the glass, and as I reached for it, she pulled it back. “First,” she said, “you must sing.”
When I published Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, I was invited to speak at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, one of about 30 novelists, poets, screenwriters, playwrights, and writers of narrative nonfiction. The three years I participated, it was a heady group: Jane Smiley, Robert Stone, Peter Matthiessen, David Halberstam, Dave Eggers, Anne Lamott, David McCullough, E. L. Doctorow, Anna Quindlen, W. S. Merwin, Dave Barry. In this august gathering, I knew not one person.
One of the authors, a delightful Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), had come steeped in the Irish tradition of public singing. I came steeped in a tradition of never opening your mouth in public unless it was to speak or eat. About twice a month, we lip-synched in church.
In the green field that separated the house on the lake from the Sun Valley Lodge sprawled a white tent that held an audience of 700. My first year at the conference, I spoke to the large group in the big white tent about the story in Ship of Gold. The second year, I approached the conference organizers with a novel idea: Most of these 700 attendees came to Sun Valley every August to be inspired, to learn how to find an agent, to get the skinny on what publishers want, to know what to wear on an author’s tour; what if someone talked to them about…writing. That year, I taught a program on one of the great ironies in the art of storytelling:
We engage our reader not by giving information, but by withholding it.
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 . . . .