Five Life Changing Writing Lessons from "The Great Gatsby"

I've taught F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to high school students for the past 20 years.  Each year we read through the novel and I make note about Fitzgerald's style and writing strategies through the responses of students and through my own observations.  

I decided to compress these many observations down into a list of five things that Fitzgerald does (and does well), because as a novelist I feel that these are lessons that any writer can use to enhance their own writing style.

1. Complexity

We can pull any sentence from Fitzgerald's piece and it is full of colorful adjectives, has surgically chosen diction, and is brimming with immediate and precise description.  Case in point, here are a couple of sentences taken from the first few pages of the first chapter:

I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth. - (Fitzgerald, 6)

This first quote is when Nick is discussing the advice of his father, but the repeated word "snobbishly" denotes a tone of disdain for the advice and at the same time disgust that he is falling into his father's shoes.  Our sentences should be as densely crafted if we are going to write great prose.  And another:

The butler came back and murmured something close to Tom's ear whereupon Tom frowned, pushed back his chair and without a word went inside. (Fitzgerald, 19)

This sentence is an example of how one can show a reader the emotion of a character without ever telling us what he is actually thinking.  It is obvious from the actions described that Tom is not happy with the news he receives from the butler.  It also sets up some glaring characterization for Tom.

2.  Symbolism

Every year one of my students points out the use of color in The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald uses color as just one vehicle for symbolism, and it is something every writer should study.  

In "Symbolic Meanings of Colors in The Great Gatsby" H.B. Zhang goes into great detail describing the various colors Fitzgerald uses as symbols in the novel.  I suggest a download and a careful reading of the essay.  I've provided a citation for it at the end of this article.

In summary:

  • Green "symbolizes Gatsby’s original dream and hope, his ceaseless pursuit of his dream and even the corruption of his dream and life" (Zhang, 41).  Gatsby stares at the green light across the bay as he stands on the end of his dock.  The green light is at Tom Buchannan's house, the home of Daisy, the woman for whom he throws lavish parties in the hopes she will attend.  
  • White "represents the immaculate and pure beauty" and is associated with the character of Daisy Buchanan, the woman Gatsby places in an imaginary ivory tower (Zhang, 41).  She is externally a stunning woman, but internally is a "beautiful little fool" (Fitzgerald, 21).
  • Red "is the symbol of violence, danger and rage" which is illustrated in the first chapter when Nick leaves Daisy's house (Zhang, 42).  Nick describes the "wayside garages where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light" (Gatsby, 25) which Zhang posits that the words "red" and "pools" are veiled symbolism mixed with foreshadowing as Myrtle is killed in front of the garage.  The color red is also present every time violence is committed in the novel (i.e. Tom bloodying Myrtle's nose).
  • Yellow obviously represents wealth and money, so all these yellow and golden things indicate that the Jazz Age is an age where everyone shows great worship of money and where the materialism is so fashionable that even God [Eckleberg] cannot avoid its influence" (Zhang, 42).

These are just a few of the many colors noted by Zhang which are used as symbolic vehicles throughout the novel.  For the amateur scrivener this advises us to utilize symbolism in our prose.  The trick is not to become to obvious with it.  Fitzgerald uses the color/symbolism technique and works it subtly in to the text.  He never writes the word "red" in the Tom-bloodies-Myrtle's-nose scene, but he mentions "bloody towels upon the bathroom floor" (Fitzgerald, 41).

3.  Conflict

The Great Gatsby is also a study in writing conflict.  Each character in the novel has some type of secret life or secret desire which often crashes violently in conflict with other characters.  It is a character-driven novel (which is what makes any great novel).  Most of these conflicts rise to the surface in frenzied ways, but many of them are subtly revealed over the course of several chapters.  Without spending paragraphs on info-dumps about how people feel about each other (because Nick is our narrator) Fitzgerald artfully shows conflict through raucous dialogue.  I will highlight certain descriptors in the following excerpt from Chapter 1: (Fitzgerald, 14)

"How gorgeous! Let's go back, Tom. To−morrow!" Then she added irrelevantly: "You ought to see the baby."

"I'd like to."

"She's asleep. She's three years old. Haven't you ever seen her?"

"Never."

"Well, you ought to see her. She's −." Tom Buchanan, who had been hovering restlessly about the room, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder.

"What you doing, Nick?"

"I'm a bond man."

"Who with?" I told him.

"Never heard of them," he remarked decisively.

This annoyed me.

"You will," I answered shortly.

"You will if you stay in the East."

"Oh, I'll stay in the East, don't you worry," he said, glancing at Daisy and then back at me, as if he were alert for something more.

"I'd be a God damned fool to live anywhere else."

At this point Miss Baker said: "Absolutely!" with such suddenness that I started it was the first word she uttered since I came into the room. 

All of these highlighted words characterize each person in the scene, painting a vile picture of these 1920's sycophants.  From speaking "irreverently" about the baby to Baker's annoying shout of "Absolutely!" the tension is elevated to a fever pitch, and this is just the first chapter.

4.  Multiple Themes

What separates mediocre fiction from classical fiction or fiction that belongs with the greats like Fitzgerald is that work's ability to work within several themes at once.  Below is a list of some of the themes evident in The Great Gatsby:

  • The Lie of the American Dream
  • Unrequited Love
  • Lost Love
  • Vacuousness of the Upper Class
  • Class Struggle Destroys Society (Marxist)
  • The Destructive Nature of Rampant Masculinity

The trick to working multiple themes into our prose is to make sure that we outline our project completely, create detailed character sketches of every major and minor character, and then write about what most drives us politically, socially, religiously through the story without becoming too preachy or overt.  Above all, the story is the most important thing.  It must grip the reader's soul.  If it is a great story, the passions we have about the human condition will come out in the text. It is not something we can just "do" however, for writing is hard work.  It takes herculean effort on our part, but it enriches our prose to create multiple themes even if it's only two.

5.  Multi-Layered Characters

As stated above, the characters in The Great Gatsby have secrets within secrets.  Tom is married to Daisy but having an affair with Myrtle.  Gatsby is wooing Daisy and is trying to steal her away from her husband.  Nick is secretly enamored with Gatsby and (as some critics have surmised) might be secretly in love with him.  Nick appears to want to be a part of the upper class life but is seen by his upper class peers as a guy "from West Egg".  

In the mound of papers that were Fitzgerald's personal effects, probably underneath the weird personal notes he left to himself, were probably a host of character sketches of some of these amazing characters he created for Gatsby. Fitzgerald was indeed a genius, but I'm sure he had worked out all of the various quirks and deep psychological makeups of all of his characters for the novel.

Before I begin any project, I create detailed character sketches of all major and minor characters.  A sample of things we should consider when sketching characters are: character's name, their role in the story, their occupation, their physical description, personality, habits/mannerisms, background and internal and external conflicts.  I then use a tool like Mindnode to connect all of the characters together with various webs and plot-lines.  

Hopefully this list helped to destroy your writer's block.  It probably gave you much more to do as a writer, but then writing is indeed hard work.  If you have any other observations about Fitzgerald's work, please write about them in the comments below.

Works Cited

  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.
  • Zhang, H. B. (2015). Symbolic Meanings of Colors in The Great Gatsby. Studies in Literature and Language, 10 (6), 38-44. Available from: http://www.cscanada.net/index.php/sll/article/view/7178