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[Editor’s note: Jonathan Rogers has begun a newsletter in which he shares many years’ worth of practical advice on the craft of writing. He named it The Habit because, as he says, “good writing isn’t so much a matter of brilliance as a matter of habit: habits of seeing, habits of thinking, habits of working.”
What follows is a peek into his wisdom. If you’d like to read more, you can sign up for his newsletter here.]
This week one of my writing students submitted a very moving story about the fallout that occurred in a family when a boy received a Christmas present that his parents couldn’t afford. The story started with a great image: “The catalogs arrived in the same truck that brought the bills—a pile of shiny magazines full of things the Kramers would never afford, topped by a pink envelope that read, ‘FINAL NOTICE.'”
Every time you write, you are doing at least two things: you are conveying information, but you are also creating an experience for the reader. To put it another way, you are conveying information, and you are inviting your reader into a scene. I am forever urging my students to focus on creating scenes and to trust that the information will take care of itself.
Scene doesn't happen at the expense of information. It's just another way of communicating information—a way that feels more like the way we typically receive information in real life.Jonathan Rogers
By “inviting a reader into a scene” I mostly mean giving the reader something to look at (or perhaps listen to or feel or smell or taste). If you give the reader the right things to look at, you can trust him to collect the information he needs. Which is to say, scene doesn’t happen at the expense of information. It’s just another way of communicating information—a way that feels more like the way we typically receive information in real life.
How do you know the house down the street is on fire? You hear the fire trucks. You smell the smoke and see it. The information comes to you as sensory impressions. How do you know the dog is hostile? You see his posture. You hear him growl. You don’t have a narrator behind you saying, “This dog is hostile; stay away from him.” You don’t need a narrator. You have your own two eyes.
My writing student could have started her story with information: “The Kramer family was in constant financial difficulty.” Instead, she dropped me right into the scene and gave me something to look at—a pile of catalogs and overdue bills—and let me decide for myself that the Kramer family was in financial difficulty.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The eye is an organ of judgment.” You give the reader a gift when you invite him into a scene, give him something to look at, and let him exercise his judgment, just as he would in real life.
And if you feel like going the extra mile, there are two ways you can lend a hand to Jonathan’s good work.
1) If you found this letter helpful, please forward it to a friend who might benefit, and/or share on social media.
2) If you have a question that you’d like Jonathan to address in a future installment of The Habit, send him an email here.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.