Scenes that work—for writer and reader

This post appeared originally in 2010 as “Keys to Conveying Experience”

Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.

“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”

In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas:

• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”
• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.

• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.

• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”

• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
This seems key to me:
“It’s by illuminating a tiny fragment of a scene and just suggesting the rest of it in a minimal way that you are most likely to get listeners to recreate the scene for themselves,” writes Elbow. “One tiny detail serves as a kind of a dust particle that listeners need in order to crystallize a snowflake out of their own imaginations.
Trying to describe everything usually means that nothing really comes alive. And by zeroing in on just a detail or two, you establish your point of view.”
And he has a final point:

• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.

Writing with Power is an unusually insightful book on the craft and helpful for narrative writers and for teachers. He has a chapter on how expository essays can be written with more power. (Just as a scene can be written without fully experiencing it, so a thought can be described without experiencing it.)


Filed under narrative, NOTED, scene, teaching, education

7 responses to “Scenes that work—for writer and reader

  1. John Wylie

    Thanks, Richard. You have inspired me to pick up Elbow’s book and read it again.

  2. Richard, I count on you to offer something I need to hear just before I write in the mornings. This was perfect. Repost more of your great content!

  3. Perfect timing for me, as well. Thank you for the repost.

  4. I have lately been thinking about all of this — and about how very long it takes to build a scene. Drafts one, two, three are murder for me (I redraft each scene separately). But starting at around draft six, I’m in heaven. That’s the best part of writing.

  5. Richard,

    I thought I had your email address but couldn’t find it–so here is an irrelevant comment to the post, but I hope one you will enjoy, since it involves college students (ones I know and love) going back to the land and starting to connect their lives to the farmers in their distant or not-so-distant past. Your favorite VA farm comes into the picture toward the end of this post. I’m following this Shoofly Project with great interest:


    • Thanks, Shirley, what a neat site and story. And the link to Polyface is great–didn’t even know Joel had a site. He is mentioned several times in my book. At one time I had 70 pages on him and his influence on me, now down to just a few as the book has changed.

  6. I just love that photo.