The Great Gatsby

The_Great_GatsbyA bunch of you reading this have probably gone out and seen the new movie based on the book The Great Gatsby. Maybe you’re a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan, and he does a great job in the film as Gatsby. If you haven’t gone and seen it, I highly recommend it.

Just be careful if you’re planning on watching it instead of reading the book–in case you’ve got, oh, midterms or essays coming up. The director (Baz Luhrmann) takes some liberties with the story in order to translate it to the screen. Plus, you should really read the book anyway–it’s a true American classic.

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to expose yourself to good examples of writing, and it’s hard to get too much better than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a master of the sentence that goes on for miles (yet still makes internal sense). Often, teachers will mark you down for long sentences. But they’re not marking you down simply because your sentences are long; rather, they’re marking you down because your sentences are encompassing too many ideas in one go–and, usually, meandering off topic.

Take a look at this passage from The Great Gatsby:

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that registered earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”

Note how far the sentence goes: we start on the broad topic of personality and end up, by the end of the sentence, in the middle of an earthquake. It’s an excellent example of a simile. It’s beautiful figurative language, and does more than just describe Gatsby. In drawing this comparison, Fitzgerald gives you a mental image to come back to. Rather than just “he paid a lot of attention to life” or something like that, Fitzgerald gives you a new way of looking at the concept of personality, a metaphor that ties to that, and a culminating image to make the whole thing more powerful. Fitzgerald loves his descriptions, his adjectives, and his similes. Fitzgerald can teach you a ton about how to show–not just tell–your reader about character, setting, and environment.

If you liked The Great Gatsby, you’re going to like a lot of Fitzgerald’s other works. Tender Is the Night about an heiress, her psychologist, and their hectic life in Europe–is a personal favorite of mine. If you liked the idea of the novel, but found yourself wishing Fitzgerald would stop rambling, buckle down, and get to the point–if you wish his powerful style were more understated–you might turn to another great American writer: Ernest Hemingway. I’d recommend some of Hemingway’s short stories. (I’m a fan of short stories in general, as they’re something you can easily devour, each chapter-length chunk a complete story within itself.) In Our Time is one of Hemingway’s early collections, and the stories are often similar in theme to The Great Gatsby. Similar, but with a much different (still fantastic) writing style. Hemingway tends to let you make the connections; he’ll leave his characters’ motivations and feelings out of his narration–rather than invoking intricate imagery to describe a character, he’ll leave everything but the most basic actions up to your interpretation.

If you’ve got some time this summer, pick up a classic work of fiction. One way or another, you’ll find something about the writing that you’ll enjoy. You won’t regret it!


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