What can F. Scott Fitzgerald teach us about writing?
Many people consider F. Scott Fitzgerald one of the greatest authors of all time, and his work is used as required reading in many U.S. schools. But even if you read The Great Gatsby as a child, the writing lessons you could have taken from it may have been lost on you then, or simply forgotten over the years. But with the staying power and impact that Fitzgerald’s books have had, authors would be smart to study what it was that he did right as a way to improve their own writing. That’s why Ginger is here with another breakdown on the lessons we can learn from a writing icon such as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The United States has produced some of the greatest authors of the modern age, but few are as well known or highly regarded as Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, who wrote under the name F. Scott Fitzgerald. Born in Minnesota in 1896, Fitzgerald cemented his place in American literary history following the publication of his best-known novel, The Great Gatsby, in 1925 – although it took many years to become as popular as it is now.
Fitzgerald died prematurely at the age of 44, and had only published four novels prior to his death. However, The Great Gatsby has remained popular for nearly a century, and earned F. Scott Fitzgerald the sort of name-recognition that only a few authors ever achieve. One such contemporary – his friend and rival Ernest Hemingway – grudgingly acknowledged that Fitzgerald’s “talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings” and there are some valuable lessons to be learned by examining Fitzgerald’s writing methods and style.
Here are the top five things I think we can all learn from the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald:
#1 Create vivid characters
Perhaps the most charming and memorable thing about The Great Gatsby is the way Fitzgerald created a cast of vividly realistic characters – from the brash and violent Tom Buchanan to our submissive, unobtrusive narrator Nick Carraway. They’re not archetypes – they seem real – and that’s largely because they were.
“I had no idea of originating an American flapper when I first began to write The Beautiful and the Damned,” Fitzgerald once told Metropolitan magazine. “I simply took girls who I knew very well and, because they interested me as unique human beings, I used them for my heroines.”
By basing his characters on real people, he managed to bring them to life on the page much more vividly than other writers of his era – and that’s one of the reasons The Great Gatsby remains so engaging and immersive even a century after it was written.
In fact, creating unforgettable characters within your novels is such an essential ingredient to their success and staying power, we recently devoted an entire episode of our podcast to the subject.
#2 Bring them to life through action and dialogue
By basing his characters on real people, Fitzgerald was able to use based-on-real-life examples of how they spoke, interacted, and behaved in order to bring them to life on the page. The combination of the three is the secret to why the likes of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby are so engaging and believable.
A great example is from when Nick Carraway first visits the Buchanans at their beautiful house in West Egg. Despite his clear disdain for Nick, Tom Buchanan demonstrates his insecurity and pomposity by constantly trying to impress him – and spouts high-minded white supremacist dogma during dinner, as if to once again demonstrate his need to feel superior to everybody else.
Yet Daisy’s mockery not only manages to show (not tell) how pompous her husband sounds – but also shines a light on the dissatisfaction in their marriage. Fitzgerald never needs to explicitly describe the friction between his characters because their words and actions do that for us – and they’re so convincing because he uses words and actions he’d witnessed during the interactions of real people as a basis for them.
Creating characters has always been one of the things Fitzgerald is best known for – but in truth, he never invented any of them. Nick, Jay, Daisy, and Tom are more like a patchwork he created using snippets of dialogue, behavior, and action he’d witnessed in real life.
#3 Let your characters bear witness to events
Another reason The Great Gatsby remains so notable even a century after it was written is the unique way in which the story is told. The book is obviously about Jay Gatsby, and his love for Daisy. However, the novel is written through the narrative of a third character, Nick Carraway – and it’s through his eyes that we witness what transpires in the pages of the book.
This is a pretty unique approach to storytelling, since we’re most often presented with the omnipresent third-person perspective, or the first-person perspective of the core protagonists. However, it works extremely well in Fitzgerald’s book because Nick serves as a much more reliable narrator than Daisy or Gatsby would be themselves. He even goes so far as to point that out by telling us that “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
Describing the behavior of one character through the eyes of another can be a really effective way of retaining the intimacy of a first-person perspective narrative, yet encompassing the multiple viewpoints of a book written in third-person; and it’s not even something you have to commit to for the entire book. The lesson we can learn from Fitzgerald is that we writers aren’t required to focus purely on our main characters and their motivations, and we can also leverage how those character’s behavior could be interpreted (or misinterpreted) by other characters who remain on the periphery of the story.
#4 Outline your stories first
Speaking of stories, it’s important to note that Fitzgerald was a plotter, not a pantster – and he explicitly acknowledged this in a letter to fledgling young author John O’Hara a decade after the publication of The Great Gatsby.
“Buy a file,” he advised John. “On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.”
For the pantsters among us, that might sound like a lot of work – but it does perhaps explain why The Great Gatsby remains such a satisfying novel to read – because he’d written it with the end in sight right from the start.
You don’t need to plan or plot every detail, but knowing ahead of time where your characters are going to come into conflict, and what the resolution of that conflict will be, helps you lay a much more satisfying trial of narrative breadcrumbs for your readers to follow; and makes the book much more memorable even after your readers have turned the final page.
#5 Write simply, but well
One of the undeniable reasons for the continued relevance of The Great Gatsby is that it remains on the reading list for millions of High School Students. It’s become one of the great American novels because almost everybody has some kind of awareness of it.
The reason it works so well is because Fitzgerald deliberately uses familiar words when he’s writing. Back in the 1920s, it was common for contemporary writers to use flowery or intellectual language in order to establish their literary credentials, but Fitzgerald took the opposite approach; using more standard language which makes his ‘classic work of literature’ surprisingly readable even for middle school and high school students.
“You ought never to use an unfamiliar word unless you’ve had to search for it to express a delicate shade–where in effect you have recreated it.” Fitzgerald advised fellow writer John Peale Bishop in a letter from 1929. “This is a damn good prose rule I think…. Exceptions: (a) need to avoid repetition (b) need of rhythm (c) etc.”
Using familiar language broadens the appeal of your book, and improves how readers will comprehend it.
Bonus tip! Don’t talk about your writing until it’s finished!
“I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished,” Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, Scottie, in 1940. “If you do you always seem to lose some of it. It never quite belongs to you so much again.”
Having written 30 full-length novels myself, I can’t help but acknowledge what good advice this is. The bane of a writer’s existence is coming up with a great idea for a story, telling everybody you know about it, and then finding yourself obliged to write it! It’s much more satisfying to finish a project first and then tell the world.
And that’s partly because the secret to being a successful writer isn’t how many projects you begin, but how many you see through to completion. Finished projects are forever – inarguable, and irrefutable. Anything else is just words.
So don’t waste words describing your half-finished efforts. Use those words to complete them. Completing something is the one step towards becoming a writer you can’t skip; because unless something is finished, it will never have a chance of finding its audience.