Writing 101: Don’t Let The Reader Out of The Room!

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I really wish I could remember who said that line. I know it was a famous screenwriter of big-budget action movies. In an interview, he was asked for tips about writing a screenplay.

The guy explained that when someone sits down to watch a movie, a million different things are running through his mind–is there enough butter on my popcorn? Is my boss going to ask me to come in on Saturday?

You have to keep the reader/viewer right there with you. It’s not easy.

You can’t let them out of the room.

That means, when you’re writing, you have to keep advancing your story. Keep. It. Moving.

When you re-write, make sure you’re moving things along. Particularly in a short essay.

Shydel James, who recently wrote a guest essay on his father, has graciously allowed us to show the edit process and how I helped him to keep the reader in the room.

Here’s how Shydel’s story originally began.

My very first memory of my father is going to visit him in jail when I was 6-years-old.

Over the years, I’ve heard stories about how my parents married when my mom was 5-months pregnant with me, and at one point, we were quite the happy, little family.

Sounds nice. Too bad I don’t remember it.

What I do have committed to memory is my very first jailhouse visit adventure.

My journey started the night before when my mother would pack my overnight bag and send me to spend the night with my father’s side of the family.  Then at the crack of dawn, Grandma, my two aunts, my cousin and I would hop on the bus from Orange to Newark Penn Station.  From there we would take the train to Rahway.  Then we would all pile into a taxi to Rahway State Prison.

Okay. This is a perfectly fine entry point.

But I’m gone. I’m not in the room. I’m mentally sweeping up crushed Cheerios that Tog has left behind and wondering when the highlights in TG’s hair will fade.

My eyes were on Shydel’s words. But my brain was wondering if the Swiffer Wet Jet was worth looking into.

I kept reading.

But I wasn’t in the room.

And then, a few more paragraphs later, I read this line:

I waited impatiently for over 30 minutes, fidgeting with the folded up piece of paper in the back of my Lee jeans.

In my notes, here’s what I wrote to Shydel after reading that line:

HERE! RIGHT HERE! I SEE YOU! THERE YOU ARE! YOU ARE FIDGETING WITH THE FOLDED UP PIECE OF PAPER IN THE BACK OF YOUR LEE JEANS. IN ONE FUCKING PERFECT SENTENCE, YOU TELL ME THAT THIS IS LONG AGO (LEE JEANS), YOU TELL ME YOU ARE FIDGETY. (DROP THE WORD IMPATIENTLY). THIS IS WHERE THE STORY ACTUALLY BEGINS. IT MAKES ME CARE ABOUT A KID IN LEE JEANS. AND IT MAKES ME ASK, WHAT’S IN HIS POCKET?

Shydel wrote nearly 500 words before he showed me this little boy wearing Lee jeans and fidgeting with a piece of paper in his back pocket. And that’s where the story really came alive.

I notice that sometimes the first few hundred words I write are just to get the juices flowing. The true gems don’t come out until I’ve written a whole lot of fluff. This line from Shydel is a prime example. We needed the fidgety kid in the Lee jeans way up at the top of this story–introducing himself to us.

In the re-write, here’s what Shydel sent back:

I had been fidgeting with the folded up piece of paper in the back of my Lee jeans for over 30 minutes.

“You excited to see your father?” Grandma asked.

“Yup!” I said, anxiously fidgeting away.

It had been a long journey to get to this point.

Grandma dragged me out of bed at 5am so we could catch the first bus to Newark Penn Station. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon as Grandma, my two aunts, my cousin and I walked into the station, stepping over bums to catch our train.  When it pulled up, my cousin and I darted onboard, racing each other to be the first to sit in the window seat.  I won.  I stood on my knees, face smashed against the window, as the train sped to Rahway. Upon our arrival, there was a fleet of dingy, white taxis waiting out front.  We all piled into one and the driver took off without a word.  He knew where we were going.

YES! YES! YES!

Now, I’m not leaving the room. I’m right there. I want to know where this is going.

And then, he gives us some much needed dialogue between him and his grandmother.

The dialogue brings the story alive. AND it tells us what’s going on. Without Shydel telling us.

We’re living it. Not reading about it. It’s happening right there. Almost like we were watching a movie.

After a few more slash and burn sessions, Shydel’s essay was tight. Each paragraph advanced the story.

And his final draft never let me leave the room.

Dear Readers:

Do you understand what I mean by not letting the reader leave the room? Does it make sense? Can you see how it applies to your writing? When you are re-writing, do you make sure that senses are engaged and the reader is there with you? Was this post helpful?

I’d love to hear from you…

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8 Responses to “Writing 101: Don’t Let The Reader Out of The Room!”

  1. Tracy Mangold Says:

    Thank you for this post! I’d never thought of it this way before, “Don’t let the reader out of the room.”

    Your example drove the point home splendidly. I’m going to write that line up on a post-it and put it on my iMac so I am constantly reminded to not let the reader out of the room!
    Thanks!

  2. Haftime Says:

    FIRST!!!

    Shydel’s essay had me hooked from beginning to end. It was so visual I felt like I was reading a screenplay. I’ve been trying to apply this thinking to my own writing much like two of my fav fiction scribes Zora and James McBride.

    An editor once told me that reading children’s books would help me learn how to write to keep the reader’s attention. And, surprising, it works. The books are simple but written to keep fickle kids and tired parents “in the room.”

  3. Haftime Says:

    No “first” : (

  4. Mignon Says:

    This makes sense. The idea is to show the emotion without having to tell the reader you’re feeling the emotion. I struggle with this but noticed that I’ve embedded a lot of “showing” inside the “telling.” Fleshing things out will help a lot.

    I get it though. This was a good example. I’m definitely going to go back through my writing and getting rid of all the “fluff”.

  5. Hanif Says:

    This feels like church, You know when you feel the preacher geared his whole sermon towards you. It’s helpful to have this guidance. Writers are in essence entertainers, no different from a singer carrying a tune, or knowing when to make certain voice inflections for an emotional draw. I spend a lot of time trying to say the right thing, and I should also be figuring out the right way to say it.

  6. andrea Says:

    aliya & crew: I have a question. (I’m not sure if this has been covered on the blog yet.)

    this post was incredibly helpful, but how can you apply this same approach to interviews? i’ve had to write several Q&A style pieces, and after reading my own work, I often wonder “Is this too long?” “Am I boring everyone to tears?”

    How can you keep the reader in the room when your content is someone else’s conversation? Do you spice up the questions? Change the format? Hope to god that the interview subject is interesting? Edit the hell out of the piece?

    What do you think?

  7. Aliya S. King Says:

    @andrea: good question. For Q&As, I edit the hell out of them. While still keeping the integrity of the piece and keeping the subjects words pure.

    But yeah, even Q&As needed to be edited. Tight.

  8. Denene@MyBrownBaby Says:

    Brilliant. Just BRILLIANT! What a wonderful lesson for would-be writers (and some who already consider themselves as such). Teach, Aliya. Teach.

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